Legacy Theatre in Branford gains a new life after years of working to reclaim the spotlight

Over the last century it presented silent films, rock concerts, Sicilian puppet shows and even a legendary theatrical disaster from Orson Welles. But for the past two decades in the Stony Creek section of Branford, the little theater — last named the Stony Creek Puppet House — has been a boarded-up shell.

That is until a group of theater lovers eight years ago set out to bring the theater back to life. After community meetings, permit approvals and a years-long fundraising campaign that attracted $5 million, the newly named, nonprofit Legacy Theatre opened April 23 for a socially distant, one-quarter capacity concert by Broadway performer Telly Leung.

“I’m hoping the in-person show becomes a glimmer of hope that says we’ll all be back in the theater soon,” said Leung, who has starred in the title role in Broadway’s “Aladdin,” as well as in “In Transit,” “Pacific Overtures,” “Godspell” and “Allegiance.”

The journey to completion was slow going at first, led by Keely Baisden Knudsen, an actress, director, choreographer and professor, and Stephanie Stiefel Williams, an actress and former attorney.

The Thimble Islands Road location first saw a non-denominational church in 1866. After a fire, the property was sold in 1914 when the new structure became a movie house, then a community theater (the Parish Players), then a summer theater, a parachute factory during World War II, then a home to Materna-Line (“the pantie and girdle that’s a stretch ahead”) until 1960. For the remainder of the 20th century it was a puppet museum that presented puppet shows.

After purchasing the building and its adjacent artist cottage for $400,000 in 2013, the team set out to ease concerns from residents of the quiet neighborhood about what they would be presenting — and what kind of audiences the theater would attract. Reassurance was given there would be no rock concerts or dubious rentals. Concerns about parking were remedied with a shuttle service to a commuter lot off nearby I-95.

In 2017 the final town permits were secure and fundraising began in earnest, buoyed by designs of a clean, wood-lined interior and a spiffed-up exterior. Renovations began in 2019 with the inside of the building gutted while the outside retained his historic facade. The pandemic slowed construction but also allowed for adjustments, such a state-of-the-art HVAC system and a back-of-house area for recording and live-streaming. The end result was a proscenium-stage theater with the audience on risers with a 127-seat capacity. The Legacy is expected to operate with an Actors’ Equity Association contract for a small professional theater.

The project cost is over $5.4 million, said Knudsen, who is also producing artistic director. A quarter of the budget came from state and federal funds, including $1.1 million in state tax credits; 65 percent from individuals and 10 percent from corporations and foundations.

So how does a theater make it with only 30 people in the audience? “We do have to lean heavily on fundraising,” Knudsen said. “We anticipate sponsorships and memberships and donations as well as ticket sales and go from there.”

During the regular season, tickets will run from $45 to $75, with lower prices for the theater’s family series. Shows will also be presented virtually when contracts allow and Knudsen sees potential online ticket sales supplementing in-house purchases.

Slated for the first year of operation are five locally produced professional plays that Knudsen will direct: the comedy “Barefoot in the Park” (running through May 23); “Just Desserts: A Musical Bake-Off” (June 2-27); the Greek drama “Oedipus Rex” (July 28-Aug. 22); the musical “The Last Five Years” (Sept. 4-26) and “A Christmas Carol” (Dec. 1-12). The family series includes “Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical” (May 1-29); “Joan Joyce” (June 5-26); and “Cardboard Explosion” (July 3).

A Broadway concert series will begin with Marty Thomas on May 27; Tony Award winner Debbie Gravitte on May 28; and Tony Award nominee Bryce Pinkham and Scarlett Strallen (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder) on May 29 — and will continue through the summer.

Special events will include Orson Rehearsed, “a multi-media stream of consciousness dreamscape film/opera/concert work/web installation,” with three singers portraying the iconic filmmaker, on Aug. 29. (In 1938, Welles’ summer production of William Gillette’s Too Much Johnson was a famous flop at the theater, then called the Stony Creek Theatre.)

Knudsen said it’s been quite a journey from the initial concept to opening night. “Seeing the gold proscenium go up recently was an emotional moment for me,” she said. “Seeing it come together before my very eyes, I can’t even describe the feeling. This is beyond my wildest dreams.”

This article originally appeared in Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale here. Sign up for the newsletter to get the latest and greatest content from Connecticut Magazine delivered right to your inbox. On Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.