Don Crowell admits he was nervous when the priest called to get tickets to Crowell’s debut production last February at the Larcom Theatre in Beverly. The show, “Return to Vaudeville,” would be the first production by Crowell and his wife, Lisa Crowell, since they purchased the theatre in September 2016. The Crowells planned a big night featuring a slate of live entertainment: music, magic, comedy, and burlesque—as in the art of women removing their clothing and using feathers here and there for modesty, a Vaudeville staple.
The show would mark the rechristening of the historic Larcom Theatre as the Larcom Performing Arts Theatre, the Crowells’ new venture. In the early 1900s, the old Larcom had buzzed with flashy shows that invited people of all classes to watch live performances, including bawdy burlesque. The Crowells were determined to recapture some of the delight of live theatre. “I wanted to go back to the roots of the Larcom,” Crowell says.
The Crowells’ nerves were running high, even before the Catholic priest’s phone call. “I was petrified,” Crowell says of the call. “I was thinking, do they really want to see the show, or will they picket?” Finally, Crowell remembers confessing, “Father, there will be some scantily clad women hiding behind feathers.” “Yes,” the priest responded cheerfully, he was aware of that. In fact, the priest added, “We’d like to get front row tickets.” The priest knew what even Crowell didn’t know before he planned the show: that burlesque is not exploitation, but, as Crowell says one of the performers told him, “women celebrating our curves.”
The show, a throwback to the old-fashioned variety format, was an enormous success. Crowell, dressed in early-20th-century clothing greeted attendees in the style of the 1912 opening of the original Larcom. As the Crowells discovered, people today, just as 100 years ago, need to forget their troubles and connect with other people.
“The public loved it,” Crowell recalls. The house—it can hold 600 with standing room—was completely full. And the couple drew a slew of attendees under the age of 30, something a lot of locals thought couldn’t be done.
Today, the Crowells are reveling in the rebirth of this theatre’s live entertainment in downtown Beverly, where an arts district is booming. The upcoming spring lineup is impressive, including “A Sinatra Tribute with Steve Marvin,” vocalist Miranda Russell, children’s theatre, and comedy.
One performance scheduled for May 20, “Benise: The Latin Riverdance,” is especially meaningful for Crowell. The show, a spectacular combination of music, dance, and theatre laced with Benise himself playing Flamenco guitar, was a risk. “Taking on an Emmy Award–winning international artist was a greater risk than usual because of the large financial investment to bring the show to an intimate theatre like the Larcom,” Crowell explains. But it is also an emotionally fulfilling experience. Several years ago, when Crowell was still single, his mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. One of their favorite activities was watching PBS concerts during pledge drives, and through the performances they discovered the powerful musician Benise. “It’s one of my fondest memories of me and my mother,” Crowell says. “I feel that I made the decision with my heart.”
In March, the theatre was packed with youngsters cheering on the little monkey in productions of Curious George and the Golden Meatball and the fairytale story Cinderella, presented by Boston Children’s Theatre. With a new digital projector and screen, the Crowells also expect to host movie nights, featuring art films and cult favorites. The restored theatre’s fantastic acoustics have drawn Grammy Award–winning artists. Local talent also will continue to have a venue.
The theatre is named for Lucy Larcom, the 19th-century poet, teacher, and co-editor of a magazine for female mill workers in Lowell. When the Crowells purchased the Larcom almost a year ago, they were taking a leap of faith. It would be a new venture for Don, a real estate broker, and Lisa, a marketing professional. While both continue to work in their day jobs, the Larcom has taken on a major role in their lives, especially since the birth of their son, Benjamin, in 2015.
The toddler is a big reason the Crowells took over theatre, which had been an adult movie house and, for 35 years, a venue for magic shows. As Crowell says, “We look at families today, and we think, ‘How can we be the best parents possible?’ I see kids glued to their phones and iTunes. We want the theatre to be community oriented, to break the pattern of staying home.”
The Larcom Theatre
13 Wallis St., Beverly, 978-922-6313