Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a seven-part series chronicling aspects of Westerly history in celebration of the town’s 350th anniversary in 2019. A shorter version of this story appears in Saturday's print edition.
WESTERLY — From theater to music and dance, and from painting to sculpture and literature, Westerly has been steeped in the arts since before European settlers arrived in the mid-1600s.
The indigenous people who first inhabited the land — members of the Niantic and Narragansett Indian tribes — began the region's rich cultural heritage thousands of years ago. They told stories, created cairns, designed wampum jewelry, wove baskets and painted murals, according to Lorén Spears, the executive director of the Tomaquag Museum.
"It was utilitarian art," said Spears. "Today we consider it art, but back then it had a purpose. It was beautiful and purposeful. It was art, but it was useful."
In those days, before newspapers and books, storytellers would pass along the legends and the laws. Paintings in the form of pictographs recorded history, showing scenes from battles, hunts and storms.
Stories and songs may have been forms of entertainment, Spears said, but they were also educational and ways to document what was going on in the world.
Since those early days, Westerly's history has been chock full of compelling people and vibrant organizations centered around the area's rich arts and culture scene. Certain names — Harriet and Stephen Wilcox, George "Bunky" Kent, Anne Utter, Nikki Bruno and Bucky Walsh, Sallie Coy, Jillian Barber, Arthur Pignataro, Al Copley, Simon Holt, Paul Lynch, Harland Meltzer and, more recently, Chuck and Deborah Royce — come up again and again in stories shared about Westerly's cultural life.
Certain institutions, establishments, organizations and events — the Bliven Opera House; the Memorial and Library Association of Westerly; the Center for the Arts; the Chorus of Westerly; Twelfth Night; the Knickerbocker Café; Virtu Art Festival and its predecessor, Art in the Park; the Morris Men; Salt Marsh Opera; the Dante Society; Musica Dolce; Westminster Strings; the Theatre Workshop; The United, Colonial and Granite theatres — are also significant strands in the colorful tapestry of Westerly's cultural history, along with the ingenious fundraisers created to support them.
When Savoy Bookshop and Café opened in 2016, it opened the door for even more cultural activity in town.
"I have so many good impressions of the arts and culture in Westerly over the 24 years I've been in Rhode Island," said Randall Rosenbaum, executive director of the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. "I know this time period is slightly less than the 350 years Westerly has been around, but it’s been instructive."
Perhaps the oldest formal arts organization in town is the Westerly Band, which can also boast a national distinction. At 166 years old, the band is the oldest civic group in continuous service in the entire country.
According to historical notes, a Westerly Brass Band was giving concerts as early as 1852. In 1854 a band played for the Westerly High School's "rhetorical exercises," and a program from 1859 announces a "Grand Concert" by the Westerly Brass Band under the direction of A.J. Foster.
Later that century, in 1885, Westerly native Courtland Bradford Bliven, "a man of commanding presence" and "great executive ability," according to historical accounts, built the Bliven Opera House at 100 Main St., on the site of today's Avie's Ski/Sport.
The Bliven Opera House was the first major theatre to be built in Westerly with a large, 37-foot-by-56-foot stage and seating for 1,200. While it was initially the place to enjoy opera and theater, it eventually became the home for traveling vaudeville shows and, eventually, motion pictures. Dances and balls were also held at the facility, like the First Grand Ball sponsored by the volunteer fire department of Westerly, held in December 1897.
"The old Bliven Opera House ... held pleasant memories for many until it was destroyed by fire on Jan. 3, 1925," according to a story published in The Sun.
The Memorial and Library Association of Westerly
When the Westerly Library, with its outstanding collections of art and literature, opened its doors in 1894 — complete with an art gallery and museum — it became the new cultural center of town. With its mission "to strengthen the community and enrich lives by stimulating intellect and sparking imagination through access to literature, information, nature, and the arts," the library, as stated in its vision, "strives to be one of the premier intellectual, cultural, and botanical assets in the region."
One of the library's many prized collections includes the papers of prolific children's book author Margaret Wise Brown, author of classics such as "Goodnight Moon" and "The Runaway Bunny."
The Margaret Wise Brown Collection includes typed sheets of paper with stories and handwritten corrections, illustrated storyboards of the book "The Little Brass Band," and two first-edition tiny books called the "Little Fur Family" encased in rabbit-fur book-covers. There are personal letters, diaries, "scraps of paper in Brown's flowing cursive handwriting, and papers she wrote in college for creative writing classes," according to newspaper accounts.
Outside in Wilcox Park, the 14-acre Victorian walking park next to the library which is owned and maintained by the Memorial and Library Association, a bronze Margaret Wise Brown Runaway Bunny sculpture sits in a bed of soft wood chips, making it safe, comfortable and accessible for little climbers.
A plaque embedded in the ground is inscribed with the words, "and to our ages drowsy blood still shouts the inspiring sea!"
Wilcox Park, the 1898 bequest of Harriet Wilcox, is also a masterpiece. Designed by Warren H. Manning, who was once an associate of Frederick Law Olmsted, it has been a nationally significant listing on the National Register of Historical Places since 2004.
The library’s first addition, in 1902, included an art gallery designed to showcase the art treasures of Stephen Wilcox, the local industrialist-inventor who donated the land on which the library is situated. In 1928, a second addition was constructed that included a new children’s room with the Hoxie Art Gallery above and a museum below.
The library collections include portraits of many of Westerly's important former residents, many landscape paintings and a collection of silver, china, and collectibles gathered by Harriet Dorothy Rothschild.
The Hoxie Gallery, considered to be one of the premier galleries in the region, shows exhibits featuring work of local artists and cooperative groups which change every several weeks.
"The gallery space at the Westerly Public Library is a great model for other community libraries," said Rosenbaum, of the state arts council.
Westerly native Lido Mochetti, a longtime volunteer who served on the library's 2017 "Treasures Through Time," exhibit, which was created to honor the 125th anniversary of the library's founding, said for a time, the library even had a loan collection, which offered cardholders the opportunity to borrow paintings or pieces of art from the library's collection.
"You could loan a painting or a sculpture like you could loan a book," he said. "It was a great idea and a cooperative effort."
But it was the late, beloved Sallie Coy, the longest-tenured librarian and first library director, who was "instrumental in putting Westerly library on the map," Mochetti said. Coy, who oversaw library life from 1930 to 1960, was responsible for many new things, including the development of the museum collection.
In the 1960s, Mochetti recalled, the Hoxie Gallery "was the avenue for traveling exhibits" from the Smithsonian.
Mochetti recalled one memorable exhibit of Contemporary Crafts, curated by the late Nancy Slozberg Klotz, a gifted Westerly artist, potter and businesswoman. Klotz opened Sun Up Gallery in Avondale in 1976. The gallery, which she ran until 2014, was known for its exquisite "collectables and delectables," according to Westerly native Jillian Barber, a celebrated Rhode Island ceramic sculptor who studied with glass artist Dale Chihuly when she was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design.
For two summers in the early 1970s, Barber and Klotz, along with weaver Alice Pickett and leather artist George Dailey, ran a small artists' cooperative inside the Ocean House appropriately named the Ocean House Artisans.
"Nancy had wonderful taste," said Barber, who would often accompany Klotz on buying trips for her shop, which attracted craftsmen and women and contemporary craft connoisseurs from around the country.
Today, Avondale Arts occupies the former Sun Up Gallery, a space that offers lectures, art exhibits, and classes in painting, computer visual arts, needle crafts and horticulture design.
In August of 2017, the library organized an exhibit called "Treasures Through Time," which opened to rave reviews and tremendous enthusiasm when several artifacts from the library's Special Collections were taken out of storage and put on display in an exhibit fit for the finest museum. Items included a velocipede, a 6-foot-tall bicycle made in Westerly; a Stillman clock, which was recently on display at Yale; and portraits of famous people.
Noted artist Ian Newbury, whose work includes exquisite watercolors of local beaches, sunsets and storms, plus such iconic local spots as the library, Ocean House, and houses and streets throughout Stonington and Westerly, created watercolors of the library and park to commemorate the 125th celebration.
Newbury also designed the invitation for the library's 125th gala celebration, which took place in Wilcox Park on a glorious summer's evening in July.
Historically speaking, added Rosenbaum, Westerly has "good bones."
Westerly is a town full of "important and committed arts organizations and individual artists doing interesting work," he said.
One of the many artists who called Westerly home was a commercial artist and photographer named Fred Stewart Greene. A North Stonington native who was born in 1876, attended Westerly Public Schools, graduated from Westerly High School in 1894 and won a scholarship to the Rhode Island School of Design, Greene went to New York and studied at the prestigious Arts Students League and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He then returned to Westerly to live with his family in its High Street home.
In 1899, Greene, who taught at the New England School of Design in New London and was an honored member of the Noank Sketching Club and the Westerly Art Club, opened a studio in downtown Westerly, where he taught classes in painting and photography.
United Theatre / Knickerbocker Cafe
On Jan. 18, 1926, a year after the Bliven Opera House burned down, the United Theatre on Canal Street opened as a vaudeville theatre, according to Tony Nunes, who directs events and marketing for the theatre. The opening-night gala featured five acts of Paramount Vaudeville, including the Seven Rainbow Girls, Eddie Cooke and the Shaw Sisters, Bernard and Ferris, Exposition Jubilee and the Jean Jackson Troupe. That night also featured the first film ever to play at the United, the now-lost May McAvoy silent film "Tessie."
The United saw its share of big-name performers, ranging from world-renowned opera stars including operatic contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink and tenors Mario Lanza and Giovanni Martinelli to well-known vaudeville troupes like the Will Mastin Trio, featuring Sammy Davis Jr.
The United was the only theater fitted with an organ, making it the go-to theatre for silent films, and was the first theatre in the region to showcase the “talkies," according to Nunes. The new film technology drew such overflow crowds that two shows were necessary before the final curtain was drawn at three in the morning. As silent cinema began to fade, the theater would eventually transition into a full-time movie theater showcasing the biggest and best first-run features. When "Star Wars" was released in 1977, the film was such a hit that it played at the United for an entire year.
Three other movie houses popped up in Westerly over the years. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the Wayfarer, next to what is now Amigos Taqueria Y Tequila, showed black-and-white films for a number of years, and in the 1980s and ‘90s, Hoyts Cinema on Granite Street showed popular movies of the day. In the early 2000s, the husband-and-wife team of Daniel Kamil and Emily Steffian, opened the Revival House, a 55-seat cinema on High Street, which they ran until 2007.
Locals still have sentimental stories about the United, plentiful and packed with the powerful passion that happy childhood memories inspire. Mention the United and Westerly-area folks are ready to share memories of the movies they watched there, the people they went with, or their first kiss in the balcony.
The United was open until 1986 and remained shuttered until 2006, when the Westerly Land Trust purchased the theater as part of its Urban Program. The purpose of the program is to focus resources on the redevelopment and enhancement of commercial properties in the downtown area, particularly those in areas of historic significance to the town. Today, the building and adjoining space are about to undergo extensive renovations designed to transform the property into a multi-use arts complex.
For the last few years, the United has sponsored a Folk Festival in Wilcox Park which has featured well-known musicians, including Blitzen Trapper, the Barr Brothers, Langhorne Slim, Michael Nau, Woods, The Low Anthem, My Bubba, Elvis Perkins, Luke Temple, Little Wings, Barna Howard and Westerly's own Wild Sun. The United also sponsored, with the library, a children's movies series in the theatre and in Wilcox Park, a film festival and a number of open houses.
In the last few years, the United and The Knickerbocker Music Center have partnered, in hopes of "allowing for centralized programming, marketing, and the coordination of physical space,” according to Nunes. Located just around the corner on Railroad Avenue, The Knick will create a multi-venue regional campus for the arts.
The Knickerbocker Café on Railroad Avenue was built in 1933, shortly after the end of Prohibition, according to Knick Executive Director Mark Connolly. The Café itself is named after a train that passed through Westerly station at the time of the café’s founding.
The Knick was first owned by brothers Albert “Aggie” and Paul Vitterito, who transformed the 1920s Railroad Avenue ice cream stand into Westerly's premier night spot. The Knick became an Italian restaurant of note, and over time evolved into the place for wedding receptions and a big band dance club. By the 1970s, it was all about the blues at the Knick. In 1977, the sons of the owners, Salvatore Vitterito, son of Aggie, and his cousin, Paul "Junie" Vitterito Jr., took over the family business.
Over the years, Junie booked the bands that not only put the Knickerbocker Café on the map, but drew people from Providence, Boston and from as far away as New York to hear the music and dance.
By the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Junie was booking national acts like The Platters, Tiny Tim, The Drifters, The Belmonts, Carl Perkins, Danny and the Juniors. And in the years prior, big bands and swing bands came to play for the regulars who got their swing fix on Railroad Avenue. Floor shows, dance bands and other shows were often broadcast on live radio.
And then came the local blues musicians: Greg Piccolo, Roomful of Blues, Johnny Nicholas, Al Copley and Sugar Ray Norcia.
The club thrived as one of the leading entertainment centers in southern New England, Connolly writes, hosting regional and national bands with an emphasis on the blues. Some of the greats that played on the Knickerbocker stage include Big Joe Turner, Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland, Leon Russell, Eric Burdon and Stevie Ray Vaughan. In 1967, Roomful of Blues was born in Westerly, when guitarist Duke Robillard and pianist Al Copley started a band that played tough, no-holds-barred Chicago blues. Making the Knickerbocker Café their home club, it didn't take long before they started exploring swinging, jumping blues and added a horn section. Roomful would pack the house every Sunday and still plays their great brand of blues today.
Since 2014, the Knick has partnered with the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra & Music School and has been offering classes to students in the Westerly and Chariho school districts.
Together, the United and The Knick plan to provide an Educational Learning Center for weekly lessons, classes and ensemble students of the Philharmonic Music School.
Connolly said both venues plan to build on attracting national headliners that, to date, have included such musicians as Jon Batiste, Robert Earl Keen, Deer Tick and Leon Russell.
Chorus of Westerly
"There has always been a big interest in the arts in Westerly," said George "Bunky" Kent, a professor of music emeritus at the University of Rhode Island and the man largely responsible for the creation and staying power of the Chorus of Westerly. "There has always been something going on."
Kent, who co-founded the Chorus of Westerly in 1959 when he was a graduate student at the New England Conservatory, is the celebrated organist and choirmaster of Westerly's Christ Church. A recipient of a number of awards, he was honored with a Governor’s Arts Award — Rhode Island’s highest honor in the arts — in 1988.
For many years, Kent said, before the chorus was founded and before the Colonial and Granite theatres came into existence – even before the Theatre Workshop, the Center for the Arts or the Dante Society, which is dedicated to preserving Italian culture -- the public schools served as centers for the arts.
Kent, who grew up in Pawcatuck, said he remembers the drama clubs from both Westerly and Stonington high schools offering excellent productions for the community.
"They were doing things like Gilbert and Sullivan" said Kent, who also recalled the impact of teachers such as Poppy Valentine and Henry Lawton.
"Westerly always had amateur groups," added Mochetti, "And there were productions at the American Legion and Granges," even shows that today would be considered tasteless and offensive, he said, like minstrel shows, which remained popular in this country through the 1950s.
Mochetti said there were also a number of local dance venues, called casinos, where people would gather to dance to the sounds of the big bands.
The Arts Commission of Christ Church has also sponsored arts programs over the years, said Mochetti. With the church's impressive C.B. Fisk organ, a number of notables have played there over the years.
"There was a men's chorus, a group called the Westerly Singers, that got interrupted by the war," Kent recalled, "and there was a woman's chorus also, called the Pawcatuck Valley Singers."
But it was while Kent and his wife, Lynn, were attending the wedding of Tony and Angie Trovato in the 1970s that Kent first heard the acoustics inside the old Church of the Immaculate Conception that a seed was planted. The stone and the wood combined to create an extraordinary sound, Kent said.
"We recognized that it was unusually special," said Kent. "It was our first time in the church and we were blown away. They don't build them like that anymore."
Years later, when "the building was in trouble," Kent said, "we established the Center for the Arts" to help create a vehicle to purchase the building.
The "we" Kent referred to included his wife, Lynn, and the late Anne Utter, who died in 2006, leaving behind a legacy of artistic accomplishments, most notably the extravaganza known as "A Celebration of Twelfth Night."
What those two women created in Westerly, said Mochetti, was "remarkable."
From 1964 to 1972, the Center for the Arts, led by Utter and the Kents, sponsored innumerable concerts and other arts-related events throughout town.
Donna Celico of Westerly, a longtime champion of the arts herself and well-known and well-respected for her own creative and clever fundraisers, called Utter and Lynn Kent her mentors.
"The impossible is what they tackled," said Celico one recent afternoon as she and Mochetti shared their memories of Westerly's cultural traditions. "I learned how to do things from Anne and Lynn."
"They were two extremes," said Mochetti. "Anne was always quiet and reserved and Lynn was always enthusiastic."
Celico, who is largely responsible for a series of successful Westerly Library fundraisers — including the award-winning "Naughty & Nice Children in Literature," which involved hundreds of local people — said the Center for the Arts/Chorus fundraisers were events to remember.
Utter was the visionary force behind "A Celebration of Twelfth Night," along with the Kents. The first "Twelfth Night" was produced in 1972 and included a performance by the famous Cambridge Mummers. “Twelfth Night,” which coincided with the Christian Feast of the Epiphany, was a unique theatrical concept that incorporated traditional medieval music, dance and drama into a communal performance that involved the audience, who often sang and danced with the cast. The show involved people of all ages and the cast members numbered in the hundreds — in addition to the 200-member chorus. With most of the performers being local residents, it became known as the largest community arts presentation in Southern New England.
Utter, considered the matriarch and guiding spirit of the extravaganza, wrote a new script for the production every year. The storyline centered around a European-court rendition of the last of the twelve days of Christmas and included a classic good versus- evil plot with new characters and twists each year. But there were always the pot children and the little red devils, which were vehicles to include the smallest, youngest members of the cast.
"It was as a showcase for the arts," said Chorus Executive Director Ryan Saunders.
Jillian Barber, the ceramicist, remembers creating enormous beasts and puppets made of papier-mâché for the shows.
"Whatever Anne Utter wanted, I made," said Barber. "If she wanted a 40-foot dragon, I made a 40-foot dragon. If she wanted a giant 7-foot boar's head, I made a giant 7-foot boar's head."
There were unicorns and mythical birds and woodland creatures of every size, Barber said.
In 1981, The New York Times included “A Celebration of Twelfth Night” in its list of the "Twelve Best Things to do at Christmastime." It was a beloved tradition that lasted for 40 years.
In January of 2015, in an emotional and bittersweet evening that mixed "merriment and memories, laughter and tears, the young and the old, the ancient and the new in a dazzling tapestry of dance, song, music and fun," the chorus presented its final production of "A Celebration of Twelfth Night."
But it was also, according to a story published in The Sun the next day, "one glorious tribute to the folks who made the show into the extravaganza it has become - namely Anne Utter and George Kent -- and a very fitting farewell to the Epiphany tradition that had involved roughly 4,000 people since its inception.
There were other fundraisers too, Celico said, fundraisers that were more like full-scale productions, included a now legendary haunted house and the Christmas Houses, when an entire house was transformed and each room was decorated in Victorian style one year, German the next, and Dickensian the third.
"Lynn gave every group a room to decorate for a fundraiser," said Celico, and the outcome was exquisite.
"The Victorian one included 655 volunteers," said Celico. "And there were 29 different musical groups."
Saunders remembers being in awe of the dragon's castle fundraiser and the haunted house as a child.
One year, Celico recalled, there was an indoor Christmas pageant with large and vocal live animals.
"I remember some gassy sheep and a hilarious mule," said Celico with a hearty laugh, "It was very rough. There was a crying baby and the mule ... they couldn't get the mule up the stairs."
In December of 1974, she said, pulling out a yellowed copy of a story that ran in the Groton News, which was written by the late Gloria Russell, a longtime Sun columnist, there was a fashion show that included dozens of locals.
"About 30 volunteers, with much aplomb, modeled fashions from the Blue Mitten Thrift Shop, a sophisticated second-hand store, and got the monthlong Festival of Christmas activities off to a good start at the Center for the Arts last week," the story said. "The Center was the setting for the Fish and Fashions luncheon, during which a lot of good sports presented a program entitled 'Famous Moments in the Future of the Center for the Arts.’"
The story was accompanied by photos of Dorcas Van Horn in the role of Quilting Bee, Joseph McAndrew as a travel agent and cook, Tony Travato as a bell-ringer and Leo Moroso as a peddler.
Whatever the event, Celico said, "Bunky always played the piano."
The community was so "thirsty for the arts," Kent recalled, that things came together. People with ties to the broader world of the arts jumped in to help. People like the late Henry Moses, an attorney who was general counsel of Mobil Oil Company and a vice president of Mobil Oil Corporation responsible for the firm’s interests in the Middle East. He was instrumental in bringing the great Yo-Yo Ma and the late Rudolf Serkin to play at the former Immaculate Conception church. Serkin was said to have commented on the building's stellar acoustics, Celico said.
"He told Bunky that the church was a miracle of acoustics," Celico said.
The Center for the Arts purchased the historic church for $40,000, the name of the building was officially changed to the Center for the Arts and the building was named to the National Register for Historic Places. In 1991, the Chorus of Westerly purchased the building from the receiver for $165,000 with money raised from board members and a few other "special friends of the Chorus."
For the next 20 years, Kent led the chorus — the only multi-generational chorus of its kind in the country. The chorus has become nationally recognized as unique in its practice of having children sing a full concert season of challenging repertoire with adult singers.
In 2012, he handed his baton to Andrew Howell, his former student and a "chorus kid."
Aside from "Twelfth Night" and the annual Christmas Pops concert, the Chorus of Westerly also hosts one of Westerly's most remarkable musical events. Each June, in what has become the traditional kick-off to summer for Westerly residents, thousands of people flock to Wilcox Park to hear the 200-plus members of the chorus, along with members of the Boston Festival Orchestra, present a concert that has come to be called Summer Pops. It includes its celebrated and popular grand finale, a choral version of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," complete with the booming cannons from the Artillery Company of Newport, ringing church bells from Christ Church, and fireworks by Grucci. Some estimates claim that close to a million people have experienced the music and magic of Summer Pops.
The pops concert actually began on a warm summer night in 1981, when a couple of hundred singers, a huge orchestra, and one very enthusiastic crowd crammed into Westerly's Dixon Square for a special “one-time-only” concert," ahead of the chorus' European tour.
"There have been a lot of people over the last 40 years that have made the chorus what it is today," said Saunders. "Bunky, of course, but we can never forget Doug and Jean Rayner."
"The Chorus of Westerly was my first introduction to your community," said Rosenbaum, of the state arts council. "My background is in choral music, and I was fascinated by the Chorus’ model of community engagement. Then I attended a concert and was blown away by its quality."
"The Chorus is just one example of community-committed arts organizations in Westerly," he added. "I've been impressed with the Artist Cooperative Gallery of Westerly."
The Artists' Cooperative Gallery of Westerly, founded by artists Bruce Goodsell, Sandi Gold and Ginger Mitchell in 1992, was first located in the Brown Building on High Street, which was owned by Bill Griffin of Stonington.
"The Co-op would not be what it is today without Bill Griffin," said Gold, a Westerly resident. "He was a lifesaver. A gift."
Downtown Westerly was "dead" back in the early 1990s, Gold recalled, and Griffin offered the fledgling arts group six months of rent-free space to get started.
Around the same time, Gold said, she and the late Webster Terhune, an artist who was, for a time, the curator of the library's Hoxie Gallery, coordinated the Wednesday "Westerly Arts Stroll."
"The library was open on Wednesday nights," Gold said, and the two artists thought it would be a way to increase awareness of Westerly's growing art scene.
In 1993, Gold and Terhune collaborated on a project called "Temple of the Soul," which resulted in national coverage from the New York Times, People Magazine and ABC's “20/20.”
The project brought more than 10,000 people to the library, said Gold about the 10-foot-by-60-foot pastel mural she painted inside the library. The mural was "full of everyday sights — sunsets, trees, flowers — that most people take for granted," according to People. Gold worked on the mural from the beginning of September until its completion on Nov. 30 that year. On Jan.1, she returned to the library, this time with soap and water, to erase her work.
"Her message was that, as she has discovered, nothing can be taken for granted — not life, not art," according to the People story.
In February 2010, the cooperative, with roughly 50 artist members and a dedicated group of friends, associates, sponsors, and volunteers, moved into the former Montgomery Ward Building on Canal Street.
It was largely thanks to Kelly Presley, the former executive director of the Westerly Land Trust, Gold said.
"Kelly and I had become friendly," Gold recalled. "We needed more space and the land trust was looking for someone to use that space."
"They were wonderful to us," said Gold. "They renovated the space and enlarged it."
Last August, the gallery moved into the Westerly train station in an unusual collaboration that involved the state Department of Transportation, which owns the building and parking lot, and the gallery, which needed new quarters while its High Street space is renovated as part of the United Theatre renovation project.
Artist Nancy Young of Westerly may have been only 6 years old, but she remembers her father, the late Robert Young and cast members from the Theater Workshop, rehearsing plays in the living room of their Beach Street home.
"We had all kinds of personalities," said Young, whose dad founded the theater company. "They were like family to me."
Young particularly remembers rehearsals for "A Shot in the Dark," and "You Can't Take it With You," and actors like Arthur Pignataro, Bucky Walsh, Janice Gulluscio and Vinnie Silvestri.
"They did a ton of shows," recalled Young who has also acted in many local productions over the years. "My dad did everything from lights to sound to acting and directing. He was brilliant."
David Jepson, artistic director for Westerly's Granite Theatre, can still remember the message on his answering machine left by the late Paul D. Lynch close to 20 years ago.
Lynch, who died in 2011, was legendary for his support of such local institutions as the Ocean Community YMCA, the Westerly Hospital, and the Colonial Theatre.
"If you want to talk to me as much as I want to talk to you, then give me a call," Lynch said in his message."
"So we met at Billy Holiday's restaurant, and he asked me if I'd be crazy enough to run two theaters at the same time," said Jepson with a laugh.
At the time, Jepson and his wife, Beth, were living in Pawtucket and running the City Nights Dinner Theatre. For two years, they were crazy enough to run two theaters, Jepson said. Then they relocated to Westerly, and have been producing plays at the Granite ever since.
According to a Sun story from 2003, the Musica Dolce performance, "Classics by Candlelight," was the 150-year-old building's first program "since Paul Lynch, Thomas Black III and Stuart Pucci bought it from Rose and Martin Meltzer for $150,000 in January and then spent another $85,000 for improvements. The newly refurbished and reincarnated Granite Theatre, formerly the Colonial Theatre and before that a church, debuted Saturday night to rave reviews during a chamber music concert. The consensus of those on hand: Westerly's arts community has a new jewel on the hill above Wilcox Park."
"It's been a great run," said Jepson, who is entering his 18th year at the helm of the Granite.
The Colonial Theater was founded by New York native Harland D. Meltzer in April of 1985.
"Harland brought equity theatre to Westerly," said Celico.
The performances were held in what is today's Granite Theatre. In 1991, The Colonial introduced its Shakespeare Festival in Westerly's Wilcox Park, which ran consistently for more than 25 summers. In 2001, The Colonial initiated its "Shakespeare-To-Go" program in public schools in Connecticut and Rhode Island. Most recently, Meltzer helped launch a groundbreaking partnership with the Westerly Public Schools that will not only establish a permanent acting curriculum for Westerly's high school students, but will also provide a "professional pathway" for students to engage in vocational skills training through professional theatrical productions. Meltzer stepped down from his role earlier this year, returning permanently to New York to care for his aging parents.
Stage Door Theater Company, under the direction of Eugene Celico, began around 1986. At first, Celico said, the company did mostly small productions, until 1991. It was then the company produced perhaps its most ambitious project in the park Celico calls "the most beautiful park in New England.”
"Stage Door Theater Company produced 'The Passion of Christ' in Wilcox Park," Celico said in an email. "It was attended by two thousand people, and gave Stage Door recognition in the community."
"We found an audience," said Celico who continues to stage productions ranging from comedies to classics to original works when he can.
Westerly continues to be a place where the performing arts "can thrive, inspire and educate," said Celico, where they "have become a staple in our diverse and talented community."
Virtu Art Festival, a hallmark annual event sponsored by the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce, attracts roughly 20,000 art lovers to Wilcox Park each Memorial Day weekend, according to chamber president Lisa Konicki. It also adds close to $6.6 million dollars to the local economy, she added.
"It's good for the economy, good for the artists and good for the community," Konicki said. "The arts are good for the economy."
Although the festival celebrated its 22nd anniversary last Memorial Day weekend, it actually has roots that go back more than 40 years ago.
In the 1970s, the Westerly Art Festival, an outdoor art show sponsored by the chamber, was held in Wilcox Park. It ran for a number of years but was abandoned when many artists returned to their vehicles at the end of a long day to find parking tickets pasted on their car windshields.
The following year, artists boycotted the show, Konicki said, citing the absence of available parking and a lack of town cooperation.
"When I was first hired, I had to rebuild the art show," she said. "I hit the ground running and I started with the police department."
Since then, Konicki said, more and more people have come to understand the economic value of the arts and the impact the arts can have on a town.
"The arts have gained tremendous momentum over the last 25 years," she said.
"I think that's being demonstrated by the pledges received for the renovation of the United Theatre, the Chorus of Westerly and the Shakespeare in the Park," she added. "In general, I think the citizenry has gained an appreciation of the value of the arts and has embraced it."
Konicki credits former state Rep. Peter Lewiss and state Sen. Dennis L. Algiere for making sure that legislation was passed to make Westerly a tax-free arts district.
"If you make, sell or buy art in Westerly's art zone, it’s tax-free," she said. "That was long term foresight on Peter and Dennis' part."
Konicki said it's always the commitment and effort from volunteers that makes things happen.
For instance, she said, there are two people who give up their Memorial Day weekends each year to make Virtu possible.
"Without Angela Smith and Michael Benevides, there would be no Virtu," she said. "They have been doing this for the last 22 years. They best exemplify the spirit of selflessness that sustains the arts and all the activities."
She cited the Bricks and Murals event, which brought hundreds of people to Westerly- Pawcatuck to paint colorful murals and old-fashioned wall advertisements on the sides of area buildings, the butterfly project now underway in downtown and plans for the Harmony Trail as examples of the tremendous volunteer spirit that exists in Westerly.
The projects add "whimsy and art" to the town, she said, "and people really like how it differentiates us."
But it's not one person or one event or one thing that makes Westerly a unique arts destination, she said.
"It's the culmination of everything," she said, "and a lot of volunteers working together."
"We have an incredibly vibrant arts community," said Saunders, of the Chorus of Westerly. "It's exploding."
"There's a very European cultural feel," he added. "And I think the heart of it is here at the chorus."
"From the Salt Marsh Opera, to Kathy Monroe's Westminster Strings, to Musica Dolce, a lot of artists have been nurtured here," Saunders said. "I think we are a hub ... a vital organ."