Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center
What do Darlene Love, John Philip Sousa and BerkShares have in common? They have all held center stage at the Mahaiwe Theater in Great Barrington, a prize possession of the Berkshires and one of the oldest surviving theaters in the United States.
Every community deserves a place to celebrate and tell stories. Isn’t it ideal when that place also tells its own story? First opened in 1905, the Mahaiwe has anchored the downtown of Great Barrington for over 100 years, showcasing everything from Victorian Vaudeville to ushered nights out at the “talkies,” and from Broadway-caliber live performances to high-definition broadcasts of the Met Opera. Even the theater’s name has roots; Mahaiwe was the Mahican name for Great Barrington, meaning “the place downstream.”
The Mahaiwe Theater tells the story of a community where history, culture and celebration are at the heart of a vibrant downtown. According to Executive Director Beryl Jolly, organizations similar to the Mahaiwe are usually located in big cities. “It is a quite unique to be able to share world-class talent in such a warm, intimate space, a 700-seat theater in a rural community, where you can walk down the hill to get to the theater and then see somebody who has been on some of the world’s best stages.” Observes Jolly, “it’s a testament to the community that kept the theater alive for so many decades, when historic theaters were closing around the country.”
Starting in the late 1990s, Lola and Ed Jaffe led a 9 million dollar community effort to renovate the theater, which had fallen into disrepair. Overseen by architect Hugh Hardy, the project restored the Mahaiwe to its 1930s rose-colored interior and meticulously preserved the vaudevillian acoustics.
The theater reopened in 2005 as the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, with a mission to bring year-round entertainment and community events to the Berkshires. One of the new Mahaiwe’s first community events—and still one of its most memorable—was the 2006 launch of BerkShares. “What’s so nice about BerkShares is that they’re telling stories about the community through the currency,” says Jolly. “That’s what is so important to celebrate, and to share with visitors who don’t know about Community Supported Agriculture, W.E.B. DuBois, or the other stories that are so personally rooted in the history of the Berkshires.”
Jolly recognizes that BerkShares and the Mahaiwe have complementary economic goals, as well, and she is proud to be able to put a figure of over four million dollars per year on the Mahaiwe Theater’s local economic impact. “We’re welcoming about 40,000 people a year, and we’ve had almost half a million visitors since we opened in 2005.”
This fall, the Mahaiwe is featuring some big names, including David Sedaris, Bernadette Peters, Dianne Reeves, Arlo Guthrie, John Pizzarelli and Jane Monheit. Tickets can be purchased with BerkShares, and Jolly makes sure to mention that the Art Smart program makes $15 tickets available to anyone under 30. Feedback and requests are always welcome at the Mahaiwe. After all, as Jolly says, “Our opportunities for programming go on forever!”