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To counteract the negative press and dismal sales, Silva seized upon the time of year to turn things around. “It was approaching the winter solstice, so I asked people, ‘What does the city do during the holidays?’ They answered: ‘Nothing.’ I said, ‘You don’t put up lights or anything?’ They said, ‘No.’”
Silva went to the city authorities and offered to organize an event for Poughkeepsie’s downtown. He went door-to-door, over a total of 14 blocks, he says, asking shopkeepers, business owners, and residents to purchase lights from him. “I told them that I’d get a cheap price for the lights,” he recalls. “I told them, ‘I’ll get them for you. You pay. You put them up. But I’ll deliver them.’ I organized a parade, the whole thing. People thought I was nuts. But it worked out beautifully.”
Since then, the Celebration of Lights in downtown Poughkeepsie has become an annual event, taking place on the first Friday of December. Another free community event organized by the Bardavon is the Hudson Valley Arts Festival, which occurs every autumn in Waryas Park, along the Poughkeepsie waterfront. According to Silva, “tens of thousands of people come down” to hear music and take boat trips on the Hudson. Past performers include Jimmy Cliff, Peter Seeger, and the Wailers.
“My whole thrust back then, in ’94, when I started all of this outreach,” he says, “was, ‘This is a great city. You don’t realize what a great city this is. Let’s give you excuses to go out and go down to the waterfront.’ It’s a gorgeous waterfront down there. And now it’s finally being developed.”
The festivals have increased awareness of the Bardavon’s presence, as have the other community-oriented projects that take place inside and beyond the theater’s walls. Every year, the organization provides educational daytime performances and school residencies, as well as the Young Playwright’s Festival, which Silva calls “one of the most beautiful things we do.” For 20 weeks each year, Kurtti and actress Maggie Lowe work with 75 Poughkeepsie sixth-graders to develop the children’s writing abilities. After each student completes a short piece, actors from New York City come up for a week and work with the children. Elaborate stage readings, with professional lighting, bits of costumes, and a few props, are developed and then performed for peers during the day and for families and the general public at night.
Silva intends to duplicate this program, along with other programs for children and seniors, at UPAC in Kingston. In May 2006, the Bardavon began managing and operating the 1500-seat theater on Broadway, and by the end of this year, Silva expects that the two historic venues will have merged and be operating as a single nonprofit entity.
Another ambitious project undertaken by the Bardavon was the rescue from bankruptcy in 1999 of the Hudson Valley Philharmonic. By mustering funds from the state, various organizations, and the Dyson Foundation, the Bardavon took over and began running the philharmonic like a “real business, which is unusual for an orchestra,” says Silva. Itzhak Perlman and Joshua Bell have performed with the orchestra; Yo-Yo Ma is slated to appear in March 2008.
Other endeavors include consulting on Bethel Woods, the performance complex situated on the site of the 1969 Woodstock Festival; building a bandshell and organizing performances in Bowdoin Park in Wappingers Falls (a collaboration between the Bardavon, Dutchess County Government, and Cumulus Media); and acting as programming and marketing consultants for yet another historic theater, the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
All of this is going on while the hub in Poughkeepsie, the Bardavon 1869 Opera House, presents a full season of drama, dance, music, and film, with its minimal staff of mostly volunteers. Artists appearing soon include Joan Armatrading (June 3), the Roy Hargrove Big Band (June 8), and Jonny Lang (July 21).
“Everything is possible,” says Silva. “It’s a very sixties notion, the way we operate. We think, ‘Hey, that would be fun. Let’s do it.’ Except that we also think about it in a business sense, saying, ‘All right, how much is it going to cost? What are we going to get paid?’ Given that each project is a huge effort, we have to have a return on that effort. That is what has allowed us to grow so dramatically. We’ve gone from an $800,000 operating budget to almost $4 million since 1994, because we look at things in a very businesslike way. But the motivation is almost always the art, the ‘This will be fun, let’s do this, it will be a blast.’ We want it to be fun, but we have to take care of ourselves, too.”