April 19, 2018
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Art in the heart of Maine: Collins Center celebrates 25 years

John Clarke Russ | BDN
John Clarke Russ | BDN
The Richard R. and Anne A. Collins Center for the Arts at the University of Maine in Orono in January 2009.
By Emily Burnham, BDN Staff

Picking one highlight from 25 years of performances at the Collins Center for the Arts is difficult for anyone who has been a longtime ticket holder. There are more than 500 to choose from, from the first performance in 1986, with Yo-Yo Ma and Isaac Stern at the grand opening of the Maine Center for the Arts, as it was then known, to the blockbuster touring companies of Broadway shows and iconic comedians such as George Carlin and Bill Cosby.

For Bangor resident and former CCA board member Mel Braverman, it could be when the Andreyev Balalaika Orchestra from St. Petersburg performed in February 1991, on its first American tour in 80 years, mere weeks after the beginning of the fall of the Soviet Union. The members of the orchestra stayed with Bangor-area community members, including Braverman.

For University of Maine Foundation officer Danny Williams, who was a UMaine student when the facility opened and now sits on its board, it would be when Ella Fitzgerald performed in 1989 — or in 1988, when a young Bobby McFerrin climbed into the audience during his concert and led a group singalong.

CCA executive director John Patches was particularly thrilled when the Alvin Ailey Dance Company performed in 2003, and UMaine students stood in the wings of the stage, ready to catch the flying dancers should they run out of room after a particularly athletic leap.

There are countless stories like those, accumulated over the past 2½ decades. As the CCA celebrates its 25th anniversary this year with a season opening gala on Saturday, Sept. 24, featuring k.d. lang and the Siss Boom Bang, audience and staff members alike have a chance to look back on what the organization has done for eastern Maine since it was first unveiled in 1986.

“I remember that opening night gala, when people walked in and their eyes just popped at all the red carpet and the sculpture and balcony and everything,” said Braverman, who was one of the original fundraisers who helped build the place. “It was just something that had not existed here for a very, very long time. I can’t stress enough what an exciting thing it was. It really dazzled people.”

The building, which was renamed for patrons Richard R. and Anne A. Collins in 2007, was a welcome addition to a community long starved for entertainment and culture. A $7.5 million brand-new arts facility, packaged with the Hudson Museum’s fascinating collection of pre-Columbian art — for many, it was an answered prayer when it opened in 1986.

“It was something the community wanted and needed, and I don’t think anyone really realized just what kind of an impact it would have on the quality of life in the area,” said Braverman. “We did it all on our own — we raised that money — and look what it’s done for us. Who would ever have thought you’d have been able to see Mozart’s quartet performed here, for 30 bucks?”

Besides being a venue for touring musical groups, theatrical productions and dance troupes, the center became a home for the Bangor Symphony Orchestra, which then performed in either Peakes Auditorium at Bangor High School or the Bangor Opera House. With its beautiful acoustics and easy accessibility, Hutchins Hall, as the auditorium itself is known, brought renewed interest in the venerable BSO.

It also became a focus for unique educational opportunities at UMaine. Danny Williams, who studied music at the school, points to the level of engagement that the CCA has had with the student body on campus as one of its biggest positives. The master classes visiting musicians have given music students over the years are undeniably valuable — and the presence of the Hudson Museum, likewise, has been a boon for both students and community members .

“Suddenly, you got to be involved with world-class musicians on a real, tangible level,” said Williams. “It was, and is, invaluable. The museum, as well, has made it so the CCA isn’t just this ancillary thing on campus and in the community. It’s a vital part of it.”

As the years have passed and the community has grown, a greater variety of acts has been brought to the CCA’s stage. The $11 million renovation that was completed in early 2009 turned the facility’s lobby from a dimly lit, red-dominated space to a bright, spacious, sleek place to have a drink and converse with fellow audience members. It also brought in new technology to allow for the high-definition broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera and film screenings for students and the community.

“It put us closer to our goal of making the Collins Center a destination, with the added dimension of a cafe and a comfortable area to gather, and with film and other related events adding to our offerings,” said executive director John Patches. “We’ve followed the national trend of having less of a strict emphasis on classical music, and expanding our horizons to include all sorts of programming that appeals to a wider variety of people.”

Indeed, the CCA has managed to remain true to its original mission of bringing interesting, challenging programming to eastern Maine — while broadening its scope to include crowd-pleasers such as musicals and rock and pop acts.

“It’s part of the educational mission of the university to challenge people, and to bring contemporary things to campus. Maybe those things don’t make as much money, but they’re so important to have here,” said Williams. “You balance that out with programming that appeals to a wider variety of people, and it becomes a healthy mix of crowd-pleasing and challenging.”

For Patches, phase two of the renovations — which, among several things, will increase the fly space on the stage and construct actual dressing rooms for artists — is a goal much longed for. After all, the auditorium originally was envisioned as a concert hall, but has become much more than that.

“If we could complete phase two, we’d be able to accommodate the level of entertainment that people seem to want to see here,” said Patches. “We had an opportunity to have ‘Mamma Mia’ here, and they had to tell us they couldn’t play our stage because it’s too small. We do a very good job at presenting what we can here, but it would be a dramatic change, were we to complete that next phase of renovations. It is a major goal.”

Regardless of when those renovations are accomplished, the CCA has become and will continue to be a firmly entrenched part of the cultural landscape of eastern Maine. There are now two generations of Mainers who have never known a time when it wasn’t there, and there are thousands of young people whose first experience seeing an orchestra, a ballet or a musical took place inside Hutchins Hall.

“It’s integrated itself beautifully into the community,” said Braverman. “It feels like a home.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect date in the timeline. Ella Fitzgerald performed at the facility on Sept. 16, 1989, not in May 1990.

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