In its prime, the Sacred Heart University Community Theatre once served as home to some of the best vaudeville theatre acts around. "The theatre opened up in the early 1920s for vaudeville, and as movies became the more predominant and lucrative entertainment form, it transitioned to a movie house," said Bill Harris, theatre director. "It survived as an independent movie theatre for about 80 years, but when the multiplexes started opening up, like a lot of independent theatres, it struggled. The original community theatre put up a dividing wall in the middle and created two screens, but it was a challenging business model and eventually closed about a decade ago." The century-old theatre wasn't in the best shape when its doors closed in 2011, and it remained inactive for years. "It could have very easily ended up being another coffee shop or computer store, but there have been a lot of efforts over the years in the community to try and save the theatre because it was an iconic landmark," Harris said. It was in May of 2019 that Sacred Heart University teamed with the theatre's new owners, Kleban Properties, and the Town of Fairfield on a plan to renovate and reopen what was once the crown jewel in the heart of downtown. Sacred Heart University has leased the theatre for the next 10 years to operate as an independent student cinema as well as a live performance and educational venue. When Harris first entered the project 18 months ago, he noted it was just a brick fa\u00e7ade and a shell of a building, clearly showing all of its 100 years. "We continued to go through all the challenges of stripping out and cleaning up the building and slowly restoring the foundation and structure," he explained. "Now, everything from the dirt to the foundation to the roof is brand new and state of the art, save for the one historical artifact that we preserved which is the original stage proscenium, an arch opening over the stage itself." The inside was gutted and reimagined, the stage was expanded and a new balcony was added complete with a skybox and conference room to be available to parties and meetings. Then there was the renovation and full replacement of the iconic marquee, which has been a symbol of downtown Fairfield for a century. "It's an art-deco design in its original neon, right down to the old man with the stick changing the letters," Harris said. "We lit that up over the holidays, and honestly after being a black hole in the middle of town for 10 years, it was really an amazing gift to the town." The original plan was to reopen on Memorial Day weekend in 2020, but because of COVID, everything was put off until 2021. "We completed everything thankfully just in time to open up as this part of the world is opening up again," said Harris, who also is an adjunct professor and producer in residence at the University. And with the two multiplexes in town both now shuttered, the Sacred Heart University Community Theatre is the only cinema house around. "We've made this a multi-purpose venue, and one of the things we've done to accomplish that was (to) expand the stage to allow for live performances," Harris said. The theatre's official public opening will be in September but some events are already happening. "The day after we had our certificate of occupancy, we brought in about 50 audience members and christened the stage with some Broadway stars, including the music director from 'Wicked' and the lead from 'The Phantom of the Opera,' who did an impromptu performance and a Q&A chat," Harris said. "We've also had some local bands come in and we had the Connecticut Comedy Festival in." In early June, opera luminaries Isabel Leonard, Allegra De Vita and William Burden graced the stage to celebrate the birthdays and legacies of Fairfield's own Al and Alida Kleban, who were instrumental in bringing the iconic theater back to life. As COVID-19 restrictions lift, plans for the new, 400-seat SHU Community Theatre include a full slate of events this summer and fall. On tap are the Fairfield Film Festival, popular stand-up shows with the Connecticut Comedy Festival and a summer outdoor movie series in partnership with the Fairfield Museum and History Center. "Our core business is presenting great films, and we are launching some great film series," Harris said. "One is Century Cinema, which is all about the great films of the last 100 years." There will also be showings of some of the big films released during the pandemic, even though many people may have already streamed these movies at home. "I like to say that King Kong doesn't fit in your living room," Harris said. "It will be great to see some of these films in their glory, the way they were meant to be seen." Also in the works are dance and musical performances, children's afterschool and camp options, live lectures, book talks, master classes and Actor's Studio-style evenings with leading Broadway performers. The theatre recently launched a "Name a Seat Campaign," allowing people or businesses to donate money and have personal messages inscribed on a plaque to be placed on the back of a theatre seat. There are 419 plaques available at different price points and names will remain for the serviceable life of the seat or until it is replaced. "Everyone wants this project to succeed and this is a way for people in the community to embrace that," Harris said. "This is a great way to support the theatre and its programming outreach, and memorialize an important person or issue in the theatre." For more information, visit shucommunitytheatre.org. Keith Loria is a freelance writer.