For a century, our beautiful theater has entertained and delighted scores of patrons with its gilded architectural details and inspiring performances.

The Stories of The Zeiterion series spotlights the many features that make this historic theater such a gem: the Wurlitzer organ; stars who’ve graced its stage; the décor, like its muses, chandelier, and frieze; marquees that have illuminated its exterior; the iconic red seats; and the box office, where it all begins. As well as some of the people who’ve made it all happen: the Zeitz family; John Bullard; Deb and Ben Baker; Armand Marchand and George Charbonneau, and our volunteer ushers, to name a few.

Cheers to 100 years of the Zeiterion and State Theatre!

Learn more about the building through the years here.

Nothing holds a candle to the Zeiterion chandelier


When the Zeiterion Theatre opened its doors on April 2, 1923, patrons were wowed by a brand-new, dazzling theater. There were many shiny decorations, but none as bright as the massive and magnificent chandelier suspended from its center.

The Zeiterion was the last of a dozen theaters in downtown New Bedford, and the Zeitz brothers did not spare any extravagance. The president of Zeitz Theaters, Harry Zeitz, designed the impressive chandelier. It was manufactured to order in what is now Czech Republic and then imported by the Hawes-Farmer Electric Co. for $7,000, now $109,000 in today’s money.

It is made of Czech glass, also known as Bohemia Crystal, produced in the region of Bohemia, a part of the current Czech Republic, that had become famous for its beautiful and colorful glass during the Renaissance. Thousands of small pieces of glass are intricately fitted together to form a huge, luminescent globe. The dome it sat under was originally covered in pure silver leaf.  


By the ‘70s, much of the theater had been modernized and its grandeur covered up by fake wood paneling. Thankfully, the massive chandelier survived. When the theater was renovated in the ‘80s, they were pleased to find it intact and in working order, but it needed some attention. According to Bob Foreman, Director of Restoration, a volunteer, Dick Peterson, worked for weeks on the chandelier, cleaning, and rewiring the fixture. The "electrolier" was large enough to sit in and was lowered to working height for the duration.  

While the central chandelier was undoubtedly the star, it is believed the theater opened with four smaller chandeliers in the building, including in the lobby.  Future preservationist Tony Souza had worked as a day laborer during the renovation in 1971 and rescued the lobby chandelier. In 1982, he returned it to the Zeiterion where it remains to this day.


The chandelier continues to get the care and attention it deserves today. It is maintained annually, with additional cleaning after performances with confetti or "snow" machines.

The chandelier hangs by a single motor in the ceiling and must be lowered with at least two people. It’s a long, careful process to not damage the chandelier or ceiling. The chandelier has not been restored in 100 years and it still has mostly original knob and tube wiring, though some of the original crystal beading is crumbling from the wires. The process takes an entire week, from dusting to changing each lamp (bulb). The tools used to clean it include paint brushes, a tennis ball on a stick, vacuums, and tape.

The ring from which the chandelier hangs is made, in part, of plaster. In 2014, master plaster James Leal returned to the theater and took the opportunity to examine the ring. We will continue to care and protect the chandelier during the restoration and renovation. It will shine bright once again on (re)opening night!

The Zeiterion's Muses

The muses of Greek mythology are symbols of literature, science, and the arts – and they were especially significant to the performing arts. That’s why they play such a prominent role in our theater.

When the Zeiterion was built in 1923, the muses were selected to be immortalized in the frieze overhead. As patrons entered the theater, they were transfixed by 87 gold leaf figures dancing around the perimeter, each taking one step of a dance.  

But under a gilded exterior, the muses were made of plaster and were damaged by a leaky roof decades later. When the theater was renovated in the 1980s, they were repaired by master plasterer James Leal. Leal was hired to fix the plaster work inside the building along with fellow workers Manuel Rego and Robert Rioux. Their work took about four months, replacing 20 percent of the dancing figures.

Muses continue to be an iconic element of the Zeiterion. Thanks to Ten31 Productions, muses have come alive during live events. Arist David Guadalupe Jr. created a mural starring the muses for our community wall during our Decades Dance Party. And a life-sized muse on the lounge door watches over the corner of Purchase and Spring Streets.  

It's been more than 40 years since Leal and his team repaired the muses, and they need attention once again. They will be returned to their original splendor in the 2024 restoration!  

Find out more about James Leal and his restoration work at the Zeiterion.

The Marquee

“Bring back the marquee!” is a request we often hear, so we’re delighted to return it to the building as part of the historic restoration and renovation!  

The Zeiterion has been without a marquee for a decade. It was removed in 2014 as part of the façade restoration (7). Before then, a variety of marquees adorned the exterior of the building over the past century.  

The theater opened with a marquee of a simple awning and blade sign with “Zeiterion” running down the center of the building (1). When “Gold Diggers of 1933” was released, the theater’s name had changed to State Theatre. The blade was removed, and the marquee expanded (2). By 1949, the arch was replaced by a three-paneled awning marquee with “Zeitz State” atop each panel (3).

Eventually the ornate style was flattened out in depth and in aesthetic. First as a simple S-T-A-T-E above individual, removable letters (4). When the theater was saved from the wrecking ball and became the Zeiterion Theatre in 1983, it opened with the same marquee, but a new name (5). Then the theater transitioned to the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center, and so did the name on the marquee once again (6).  

The version that will return to the Zeiterion will be historically accurate, reflecting the original marquee style (8). The most anticipated change will be the addition of two awning-style marquees on the front of the building and the return of the blade.

Marquee signs were originally used to draw attention from the nearby streets. They not only promoted upcoming shows, but they also served as a bright reminder of a thriving theater scene. We are excited to illuminate the Zeiterion in downtown New Bedford once again!


The Zeiterion’s story starts with five brothers: Barney, Frank, Morton, Fisher, and Harry Zeitz. They were the children of Russian immigrants, and their collective entrepreneurship led them to become New Bedford’s theater mogul family. At one time or another, they operated the State (previously the Zeiterion), the Empire, the New Bedford, the Olympia, and the Capitol Theaters in New Bedford, as well as the Academy in Fall River, the Paramount in Newport, and one in Maine.

In the early 1920s, the Zeitz brothers envisioned the biggest and best theater in New Bedford to attract the brightest stars of vaudeville. New Bedford was once the richest city in the world, and its downtown was already home to two dozen dazzling theaters. The last of which would be the Zeiterion, named by merging Zeitz with the existing Criterion Theatre.  

Led by Barney, the brothers established the Zeiterion Realty Corporation in 1922 and began construction of the Zeiterion. Barney had already had several successful ventures, which led The Sunday Standard (now The Standard-Times) to say he had “business and financial genius.” Harry became the Zeiterion’s house manager, and he supervised the construction and planned the theater, which included the grand chandelier that he designed and had manufactured to order in what is now Czech Republic.  

On April 2, 1923, the Zeiterion Theater opened with The Troubles of 1922. Theatergoers were in awe of its elegance and beauty. Every seat was filled on opening night.  

Soon after opening, the Zeitzes decided to rename the theater and it became The State. During this time, they ran it alongside two of their others, the Empire and New Bedford Theaters. When vaudeville gave way to silent pictures, it was the Zeitzes who introduced New Bedford to talking movies in 1927.

The brothers invested in New Bedford, a city they loved. In 1955, their corporation contributed $5,000 ($56K today) to “Jobs for Prosperity” Campaign for Greater New Bedford Industrial Foundation to keep New Bedford competitive with other cities. Harry told The Standard-Times: “After a trip across the country to California, from which we returned last month, we had occasion to observe many cities and we still think New Bedford is up with the best of them.”  

The Zeitzes left their mark – literally. To this day, their family name is inscribed on the exterior of the building Barney purchased in 1921, on the corner of North Sixth and Union Streets in New Bedford. At the Zeiterion, the “Z” shield is still emblazoned on the proscenium and its name is cemented into the façade of the building.  

Barney, Frank, Morton, Fisher, and Harry Zeitz played a major role in the New Bedford entertainment scene for more than half a century and their legacy lives on 100 years later.

From top left: Barney Zeitz, 1923; Harry and Morton Zeitz in front of the State Theater, 1931; Frank, Morton, Harvey and Fisher Zeitz celebrating the 25th Anniversary of State Theater, 1948 and Fisher, Harry and Morton Zeitz in front of the State Theater, 1955.

Love them or hate them, it’s time for new seats!

There have been mixed reviews of our chairs over the years. Some patrons like the rockers, in the middle of the theater, which are more spacious and rock a bit. Others prefer the narrow, traditional theater seats close to the stage. But most have been eagerly awaiting new seats altogether.  

When the theater was saved in the early 1980s, time and money were tight. To ensure it would re-open on schedule, the seats were purchased secondhand from a theater in Providence that became a travel agency. While they were in good condition, they were previously used.

We’ve done our best to maintain the seats. They’ve been repaired, reupholstered, cleaned and cleaned again. But no matter the care, their age is showing. Our plans to renovate started by addressing patron comfort, and replacing the seats was at the top of the list.  

“We pulled motifs and design details that decorate the interior of the theater as inspiration for the styling of the seat and decorative end panels,” said Rebecca Durante, Principal, Wilson Butler Architects. “The goal was to select a style that was complementary to the interior detailing of the theater without overshadowing any of the existing details.”

Brand new seating will be installed. The chairs will be uniform and plush. They will retain their iconic red look in the quality New Bedford deserves. And no longer will there be a bad seat in the house.

Above: Gloria Steinem with moderator Mindy Todd (WCAI) and NBHS student Nadia Abouchanab.
Below: Patti Smith signs silk-screened posters by Rhode Island artist Peter Cardoso, Ghost Town Studios.
From left to right: Bob Woodward conducts a preshow interview. Oak Ridge Boys pose with fans. Lenny Clark with fellow Boston Comedy Jam comedians.

Behind the Curtain: Backstage

One of the most intriguing areas of any theater is where the public can’t go: backstage. The majority of the Zeiterion’s backstage space includes the green room, star dressing room, and two chorus rooms, located underneath the stage, as well as the wings on either side of the stage. We’re pulling back the curtain on each!

When the Zeiterion was originally built, the only dressing rooms were on the second and third floor stage left. As part of the renovation in the ‘80s, additional dressing rooms were built. The substage was cleared out by volunteers and transformed into dressing rooms for a star and two chorus rooms, which are large dressing rooms for a group of performers.  

In historic theaters, like the 100-year-old Zeiterion, backstage may not be glamorous, but it’s rich with stories of stars past and present. The Z’s solo star dressing room is private, with its own restroom, vanity, and chaise lounge. The likes of Joan Rivers, Wanda Sykes, Jay Leno, and many others have prepared for their performances here.  

The two chorus rooms feature multiple vanities and movable screens for several performers to get ready in one room at once. The original dressing rooms on the second and third floors are still there, though they are only used for large productions. Performances like Pippin, New Bedford Festival Theatre productions, and other musicals typically require every dressing room and just about every inch of the theater.

The green room is a waiting area for performers to lounge before, during, and after a performance. At The Z, it’s the area in front of the dressing rooms near amenities like restrooms and catering. It’s easily accessible from either side of the stage, in the area known as the crossover, where cast and crew travel discreetly between stage left and stage right.

When a performer is preparing to go on stage, they wait in the wings. It’s where stagehands stealthily work and to stow sets for scenery changes and technical equipment.

When we’re back to presenting performances inside The Z, there will be much happening backstage. And now you’ll have a better idea of what’s going on behind the curtain!

It begins with a ticket.

the zeiterion box office

The Zeiterion box office is your entree to concerts, plays, musicals, dance performances and so much more. We’re opening the door to an iconic piece of Zeiterion history.  

A bit of history

There are discrepancies about its origins, but “box office” likely comes from the office where money boxes were stored. These type of money boxes couldn’t be opened, so they had to be shattered to retrieve the money. The term has been widely used as the location to purchase tickets from at least 1786 – and to describe total sales from at least 1904.

The Z also has “will call,” which is when a previously purchased ticket is picked up at the theater. According to New World Dictionary of the American Language, the word "call" is a shortened form of "call for", which means "to come and get", so "will call" literally means "(the customer) will call for (come and get) the goods."

A hidden box office

The Zeiterion box office is located inside the lobby before the theater doors. But in the early ‘70s, when it was The State and modernized for the times, the marble lobby was covered by phony wood paneling. The theater had converted to a movie house. A screen was permanently affixed to the back of the proscenium arch, rendering the stage useless, and tickets were sold through the ticket window on the street level.  

In the early ‘80s, when the theater was last renovated, volunteers uncovered a surprise when they peeled back all the paneling added a decade earlier. They were astounded to find the original box office underneath! When the theater reopened as the Zeiterion in 1982, the box office was back in its original location. The ticket window by the main doors used for will call.

The box office may be in the same spot, but ticketing has changed through the years. Patrons can now purchase tickets online and we offer e-tickets so patrons receive their tickets electronically immediately after purchase. Not everything has become automated, however; we still offer in-person customer service, at the box office and by phone, for those who don’t shop online. We’re also open during the week and before showtimes. If you need help selecting a seat, printing a ticket or with a question in general, our friendly box office staff is happy to help.

Coming soon

While its location inside the lobby offers some conveniences, it presents challenges as well. It is not easy to find and can be difficult to access before a show. As part of the upcoming renovation, the lobby will expand, and the box office will move to a new, dedicated location accessible from the sidewalk.  

In the meantime, visit us in the lower level of the DeMello Center! It’s our temporary location while The Z is under renovation.

The Z’s Mighty Wurlitzer Organ

In September of 1923, a Wurlitzer Theatre Pipe Organ – Style F Orchestra Unit to be exact – was delivered to New Bedford’s newest theater, The State Theatre, now the Zeiterion. In its heyday of the 1920s, this unique and elaborate instrument was an economic alternative to orchestras - accompanying silent films, solo performances, and sing-along events. But with the advent of talking movies and other technological advances in the late ‘20s, the organ fell into disuse, experiencing water damage from a leaky roof as it sat stage-side in a corner of the auditorium.  

Sadly, the organ sat in the orchestra pit in silence until the late 1970s - but it had not been forgotten. Those with a passion for the instrument saw its value and went to significant lengths to rescue and restore it over the years, preserving the special experience that it alone can provide. In the mid-1970s, it was purchased from the Zeiterion by Paul Downing of Warwick, Rhode Island, a member of the Southeastern New England Theatre Organ Society (SENETOS), for $3,000. When Downing passed away a few years later, the organ was taken from his home, and thousands of its pieces were disseminated throughout the region in the homes and garages of different members of SENETOS.

The Wurlitzer returns home

From 1982 to 1989, Ken Duffie, the then-Vice President of SENETOS spearheaded the restoration of the organ, raising more than $125,000 from state and federal grants as well as charities and private donations. Through his hard work and perseverance, the organ was totally rebuilt and reinstalled in its original home in November of 1989. Upon its reinstatement, ownership of the organ was transferred to the Eastern Massachusetts Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society (EMCATOS) after SENETOS disbanded. EMCATOS continues to own and care for the organ, and it is played by volunteer organists at no charge to the Zeiterion to this day.

About the instrument

Along with the banjo, the theater organ is the only instrument whose creation is solely American. Of the 2,000 Wurlitzers created beginning in 1915 in North Tonawanda, N.Y., there are less than 300 in use today. The Z’s Wurlitzer is one of only four in New England that is still being played in its original location. The Z’s Wurlitzer is considered the most widely played of its kind in New England.  

With its three keyboards and array of buttons, knobs, and pedals, the organ can play up to 30 different instruments - including percussion, brass, and wind. All the sounds produced by the organ come from pipes or real percussion instruments located in two rooms behind the ornate grilles on the left side of the auditorium. Actual instruments are activated by the organ’s different keys, tabs and foot pedals, including 37-note tubular chimes, a glockenspiel, and a 30-note xylophone. No electronic sounds are produced by the Wurlitzer. Skilled performers from throughout New England are brought to New Bedford just to play the instrument.  

The Wurlitzer today

Today The Z’s Wurlitzer is used for as many as 50 events a year, primarily before Schooltime performances for more than 20,000 children annually. Several times a year, the organ fulfills its original role as accompaniment for silent films. From well-known Broadway and Disney tunes to classics such as “B-I-N-G-O” and “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” the organ delights audiences of all ages.  

Thanks to the dedication and generosity of EMCATOS, The Z's Mighty Wurlitzer continues to make music for all the Southcoast to enjoy.

This organ makes the Zeiterion special. It’s a unique part of American history that you won’t hear in many other places. It sounds great from any seat in the theater.

– Bob Evans, Board Member; Zeiterion & EMCATOS

Thank you, Ken Duffie

In the 1980s, when The State Theatre became the Zeiterion, it opened without one of its most cherished assets. Thanks to Mr. Ken Duffie, the theater’s Mighty Wurlitzer Organ returned home.

Ken, who passed away December 2023, identified the exact same organ that once played at The State Theatre, arranged for its journey from a private residence, and spearheaded its restoration. Ken told The Standard Times last year: “It’s a minor miracle that we’ve been able to save this instrument when so many of its kind have been lost with time. Many times when a theater was knocked down the organ would go with it.”

Ken, who was a board member of the Eastern Massachusetts Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society (EMCATOS), the organization that owns and cares for the Wurlitzer, helped to raise more than $125,000 to have the organ reinstalled at the Zeiterion in 1989.

Because of Ken’s dedication to the instrument, the performing arts, and his community, The Z’s Mighty Wurlitzer will play on for years to come. We thank him for his many contributions. His generosity, kindness and humor will be missed.

A century of bringing the stars to New Bedford!

The historic Zeiterion stage. It’s seen vaudeville, silent movies, “talkies,” and several film premieres. There have been some stars in the seats, like Gregory Peck during the world premiere of his movie Moby Dick, but mostly the stars were on stage – and there have been many!

Here’s a look back at some of the luminaries who have graced the historic Zeiterion stage in recent years.  

Pictured above in foreground from left to right: Governor Dukakis, Senator Mark Montigny, Architect Joe Booth, Director of Restoration Bob Foreman


When WHALE sought to save The State Theater in 1981, many said it couldn’t be done. It was expensive. There wasn’t enough interest for such a venue. The land made more sense as a parking lot. Thankfully naysayers were wrong and the work to restore the movie house back to a performing arts destination began in June of 1982.

Phase I of the renovation, which took place during the summer of 1982, focused on electrical work, stage lighting, proscenium restoration, and lobby rehabilitation.  Phase II, during the summer of 1983, was the major renovation that included restoration of the house, HVAC, basement dressing rooms, counterweight system, and stage lighting positions.  

Two key figures in the restoration were architect Joe Booth and Director of Restoration Bob Foreman. Booth, of Dyer/Brown & Associates of Boston and New Bedford, drafted plans that remained true to the theater’s original aesthetic, using the original drawings from 1923. He also brought the building into the next century with concepts like the new concessions area off the lobby. In addition to his work as an architect, he also generously volunteered his time during the restoration. In 1990, Zeiterion Board of Directors recognized him for "his talent, continued outstanding personal commitment, and leadership in the preservation of the Zeiterion."

Foreman, who simultaneously worked for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, came on board as the Director of Restoration. He had previously worked at Ocean State Performing Arts Center (now PPAC). WHALE hired him to survey the current condition of The State, prepare and submit construction plan, supervise the work, and direct volunteer crew. Inspired by the “Z” monograms throughout the building, he suggested the theater return to its original name, Zeiterion.


The front third of the seats were removed during The State’s time as a movie house, so additional seating was needed. Foreman reached out to John Rao at The Strand in Providence who kindly donated the replacement seats. Hard-working volunteers, including John Bullard, brought in socket wrenches and unbolted the seats from The Strand, then screwed them into the concrete in the Zeiterion. Booth took a week off work, and, along with his wife Jean, chalked out the new seating plan on the floor, which was newly cleaned and painted by the volunteers.  

In addition to the seats, several items were sourced from other locations, like the tapestries that cover the hollow acoustic panels. Replacement damask panels were rescued from the abandoned Capitol Theatre in the North End of New Bedford. They were installed by Healy-Helgesen of Providence, under the expert direction of Lou Fitzpatrick.

The original Czechoslovakian chandelier, design by Harry Zeitz, from 1923 was safely intact, but needed some work. Foreman was able to re-wire the electrolier and an OSPAC volunteer, Dick Peterson, cleaned all the prisms. It was large enough to sit in and was lowered to working height for the weeks it took to complete.

Speaker cabinets
To maintain the integrity of the original interior, Foreman devised ways to cleverly hide technical equipment inside the theater. The old "act announcer" cabinets were sent offsite to be deepened. They became the speaker cabinets, housing the new stereo sound system. Likewise, the new air conditioning diffusers and the front-of-house stage lights were all concealed from view, just the way it would have been done in 1923.

Main Lobby
One of the biggest volunteer tasks was renovating the lobby. Dark, phony wood paneling lined the interior, including the doors. Volunteers worked to pry the paneling off, which uncovered plaster column capitals and dark, dingy marble. It also revealed the original ticket booth, discovered by Bullard and his son. Booth volunteered his time to clean the marble, applying a solution he had only read about. Mark Fuller, one of the volunteers who assisted Booth in this process, shares that they applied a paste of bleach and baking soda and covered every inch with plastic wrap so the paste would penetrate the marble. It was done over several weekends, until the marble was white again.

Images courtesy, Joe Booth/Bob Foreman


After each phase was completed, a celebratory concert marked the occasion. The first one was a black tie gala featuring a performance by entertainer and Oscar-winner Shirley Jones, backed by a 28-piece orchestra. The house was full, and the event received great acclaim.  

As Phase II came to a close, the Zeiterion welcomed a high-profile visitor, Governor Michael Dukakis. He toured the theater, still under construction, along with Booth, Foreman, and future State Senator Mark Montigny, then a UMass Dartmouth student and the Zeiterion’s first student board member. A month later, the theater celebrated its re-opening with Tommy Dorsey Orchestra on July 30 & 31, 1983.  

With the restoration completed, WHALE transferred the title to the City of New Bedford, which owns the building to this day. The nonprofit organization, Zeiterion Theatre Inc., was created to maintain the property and bring its stage to life. Forty years later, the Zeiterion is preparing for its next renovation to become a state-of-the-art facility and a performing arts center for the next generation!

Learn more about the Zeiterion’s renovation in the 1980s from Bob Foreman, who has chronicled the restoration here.

The State Theatre in the '70s

Tom Shire brought more than a circus to town

In the mid-70s, the then-State Theater was “modernized” for the times and Tom Shire kept the theater alive with memorable events, especially the Bruce Lee movies we still hear about today. Most importantly, he proved the theater was viable for the ‘80s renovation that ultimately preserved the building.

Tom began working in theaters around Boston as a teenager, first as an usher and then as a projectionist. He loved talking to people about their excitement when seeing a movie or a show, and he liked the day-to-day work of putting up the letters to spell out a new title on the marquee and changing out posters when a new show began. From those early beginnings, Tom moved on to managing, leasing, and eventually owning a variety of theaters over the years. It was in the mid-70s that a friend told him about a theater in New Bedford, owned by the Zeitz family. Tom drove down from Boston and met Morton Zeitz for lunch at the Wamsutta Club. They then walked to The Z and worked out a deal for Tom to lease the theater portion of the building.  

Using his Boston connections, Tom sought out touring shows that might have a day or two free before or after their Boston engagement. He was able to land Loretta Lynn for two shows and even brought a circus to The Z stage. “We built a ramp from the stage along the center aisle, covering over some seats on both sides,” he remembers. “We had acrobats on the high wire over the stage and there was a bear act…the audience loved the whole thing.”

Tom also showed a lot of movies. “I think Bruce Lee films were the most popular at the time. We had the popcorn poppin’ and a cotton candy machine in the lobby,” he recalls. “And we worked with local groups for community events, too. We had a Miss Nursing Home Pageant for a couple of years and singing waiters and waitresses from a nearby restaurant performed a concert one year.”

A single dad with three kids at the time, Tom had them staffing the concession stand and helping clean up after shows. It wasn’t all fun, games and glamour, though. Tom spent a lot of time on repairs. “Thankfully there was a group of young people, including a wonderful man named Jeffery Dawson, who took an interest in the building because of its history and helped me with repairs. We all knew that the building was a historical gem.”  

Tom is now retired and lives in Marion with his wife, Alice. A final piece of his career in the theater business that he shared were the stars he met along the way. For many years he attended annual theater gatherings in Hollywood and had the pleasure of meeting John Wayne, Vanessa Redgrave, and Walt Disney, among many others.  

From Boston to Hollywood to New Bedford, Tom Shire knows the hard work and the glamour of a life in the theater business, and for that reason he will always be an important part of The Z’s history.


By the 1970s, most of New Bedford’s seventeen glorious theaters no longer existed. And this very likely could have been the fate of the Zeiterion.  

Saved from the Wrecking Ball

In 1980, the building was in two separate parts: The State Theatre and Paragon Travel. The Penler family, who owned the building and Paragon, was considering turning the land of the theater into parking for their flourishing travel agency. Thankfully, they first reached out to WHALE (Waterfront Historic Area LeaguE).  

A key visionary in securing a future for the theater is John K. Bullard. Before he was mayor of New Bedford, he was an agent at WHALE. He, along with WHALE President Sarah R. Delano, led a group of citizens to save The State Theatre.  

Bullard’s connection to WHALE started in 1969 in between college and grad school. He worked in the Office of City Planning under City Planner (and future Zeiterion board member) Ben Baker. In this position, Bullard helped draft the legislation to create WHALE. By June of 1974, he was working full-time for WHALE.

Around that time, Paragon Travel was booming – but the theater was not. Those who had kept its stage active and entertaining the city, like Tom Shire, were no longer involved. The Penlers approached Bullard and generously offered WHALE the opportunity to save the theater.

Bullard was quoted in The Standard-Times insisting that a study must be conducted to explore new uses for the theater before any thought of demolition. “It was more than just ‘it’s a historic building,’” said Bullard. “This was a chance to bring performing arts, to breathe life into downtown, and what that could mean.”

Bullard and Delano led WHALE’s fundraising efforts. They raised $200,000 in one month from five key donors: Sarah Delano, Charles Dana, Karen Lloyd, Angelica Lloyd [Clagett], and C. Thomas Clagett Jr. There was hope for the theater after all.

On Dec. 31, 1981, the Penlers donated the theater portion of the building to WHALE and downtown New Bedford’s last operating theater dodged the wrecking ball.

Top left courtesy, Joe Booth/Bob Foreman

The Renovation Begins

By now, The State had been closed for years and was in desperate need of repair. Bullard and his team at WHALE knew time was of the essence and sprang into action with a strategy to renovate the theater in two phases: Phase I from June to September of 1982 and Phase II from April to July of 1983. Joe Booth was named the architect and Bob Foreman was the director of renovation (more on them in the next installation of Stories of the Zeiterion). The project also relied heavily on volunteers.

The work began in early June 1982. The first major volunteer job was the demolition of the lobby. At the time, they didn’t realize the original lobby walls of marble and plaster had not been destroyed, but merely concealed and protected. “My son and I uncovered the lobby,” said Bullard. “Under the phony wood panels... [we were] astounded to see the marble of box office!”

Bullard also made another important discovery – the location of the original Mighty Wurlitzer Organ. “I got a call,” said Bullard. “‘I have the original organ… Would love to bring it back and assemble it – would you like us to?’ I said YES!”

Thanks to a member of what is now the Eastern Massachusetts Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society, an essential piece of the theater could be returned. “I couldn’t believe our organ was in pieces in someone’s basement,” Bullard said. “It was one of these signs that you’re doing right.”

With these elements, the restoration was well underway - but much of the work remained. See LAUNCHING THE 80S RENOVATION above for the next chapter in 1980s renovation efforts.

Thank you, Deb & Ben Baker

After the renovation was completed in 1982, the building was ready for business. Zeiterion Theatre Inc. was the non-profit created to program its stage, and the success of the organization was assisted by a volunteer board of directors. For the better part of its 40-year existence, Deborah and Benjamin Baker collectively have served on the Zeiterion Board and remain steadfast supporters to this day. Deb is the co-chair of the Capital Campaign for the current renovation and restoration and a former board chair.

Ben, who passed away in January of 2024, was a city planner for New Bedford in the mid-1970s. “Having been a city planner and having a broad sense of the city, he definitely felt how important the theater was to the city, particularly where there were so few left,” Deb said.

The two shared a similar passion. First Ben served on the board, then Deb, and the two went back and forth over the years. A large part of a board member’s involvement was fundraising, which the Bakers aided in several ways. Owners and operators of Baker Books from 1989-2014, they donated a percentage of sales from events held at their store, which was located in downtown New Bedford at the time. They regularly attended shows at The Z, and they were sponsors for many years. And Deb assisted with interior design; she painted the ladies’ restroom after making new curtains, remodeled the star dressing room, and purchased new chairs for the chorus dressing rooms. “Wherever there was a strong need for presentation to the public, I tried to help out, and I enjoyed it,” Deb said. “It was where we lived, we loved it, and we loved New Bedford.”

In appreciation of their service, The Z presented the Bakers with its inaugural Paragon Award in 2017. The award acknowledges commitment to the Zeiterion and the community, which both Ben and Deb exemplify by dedicating their time, expertise, and resources to the Zeiterion for more than four decades. It was subsequently renamed the Deborah and Benjamin Baker Award in their honor, and past recipients include Dr. Gail Davidson and Sen. Mark Montigny.

Pictured above: Mayor John Bullard in between Deb and Ben Baker at the grand opening of Baker Books in 1989.

I'm so grateful that I’ve been able to be involved with the Zeiterion all these years. It’ll be a part of my legacy, if you will, and is already a part of Ben’s. We love The Z.

– Deb Baker

New Bedford Festival Theatre
& New Bedford Symphony Orchestra

The Zeiterion is home to Zeiterion Theatre, Inc., as well as two resident companies: New Bedford Festival Theatre and New Bedford Symphony Orchestra. Their productions and concerts compliment what Zeiterion Theatre, Inc. presents on the 100-year-old stage.

Pictured above in top left: George Charbonneau, Founder (right) and Armand Marchand, Founder (left)
A yellow rectangle containing the text 'Wendy Hall Executive Producer' with an image of Hall to the right of the title. A yellow rectangle containing the text 'Liz Bettencourt Producing Artistic Director' with an image of Bettencourt to the left of the title.

New Bedford Festival Theatre

When the Zeiterion re-opened in 1982, it had two performing arts champions on its side: New Bedford High School educators known for producing award-winning high school drama and musical productions, Armand Marchand and George Charbonneau. They were there from the beginning. In fact, on opening night, the Zeiterion presented Shirley Jones and an archival photo of the evening shows Armand as one of her dining companions.

“When The Z first opened, re-opened after being a movie theater, I can’t describe to you the euphoria everywhere,” Armand said as George concurred. “It was amazing. You could feel it. You could see it in people’s faces.”

“The first few years of the theater, they really pushed hard to make the theater viable to the entire community,” said George. “The learning experience of any new theater organization, whether it’s Festival Theatre or the Zeiterion Theatre or any theater, is you have to pick and choose [shows] wisely.”

George was on the Zeiterion’s first board of directors, invited by John Bullard, to help guide the green theater. “Being on the board that first year, everybody was very excited about The Z opening,” said George. “And the board learned some quick lessons in a hurry.”

The duo had produced many performances at NBHS, and after their successful production of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1983, a Zeiterion board member advocated for them to present at The Z. This started a relationship that resulted in years of summer musicals thanks to Armand and George, who faced a heavy schedule of grueling production work as co-directors of three shows each summer at the Zeiterion and two shows at the high school.  

This rigorous routine proved successful by 1985 when tickets to their performances at the Zeiterion were in demand. “The show that put us on the map was a production we did of A Chorus Line,” said Armand. “We did the show and we had a gigantic opening night party. It totally sold out.”

In 1990, after 7 years and 15 productions, Zeiterion leadership changed and these beloved summer musicals came to end. However, this devasting news was the catalyst for Armand to become the founder of New Bedford Festival Theatre. George became Artistic Director. “I had to choose somebody that I thought didn’t really care what their salary was,” Armand laughs.  

Their first production, La Cage aux Folles, was a huge success. Festival Theatre, which became a resident company of the Zeiterion in the late ‘00s, brought Broadway-quality production to New Bedford for 30 years under Armand. He retired in 2019 with smashing production of Mamma Mia.

“When I stepped down from NBHS, when I retired, I still had 20 more years of work that I did for the Festival Theatre as executive producer. Every one of those was my pride…it was such a valuable situation for me – accepting role of executive producer. I just loved doing all that.”

“George and I love the Zeiterion,” said Armand.  

Learn more about the founding of New Bedford Festival Theatre here.  

…having a permanent home for the Symphony has really become part of our identity.

– David Prentiss

Pictured above in bottom right: David Prentiss, President and CEO of New Bedford Symphony Orchestra

New Bedford Symphony Orchestra

New Bedford Symphony Orchestra’s story begins long before the Zeiterion was even built. Its founder, Clarence Arey, was a gifted musician and New Bedford High School teacher who established the NBSO in 1915 to provide high quality performances of classical music for his community. He also created the first public high school orchestra program in Massachusetts, and music education for young people remains a central part of NBSO’s mission to this day.

The beginning of the Symphony’s modern history dates to November 6, 1983, when the NBSO presented its first concert at the newly re-opened Zeiterion. The following year, their Board of Trustees voted to present their full 1984-85 season at The Z, which was four concerts at the time. NBSO’s special relationship with The Z was born.

Today the NBSO presents 12 performances at the Zeiterion each season. (They present many performances elsewhere, like their South Coast Music Series, community pop-up concerts, and education programs.) It’s currently run by David Prentiss, who joined the board in 1995 and became President and CEO in 2008.

“From a historical standpoint, the Symphony moving to The Z when it reopened was a huge step for the orchestra,” said David. “We were playing in various school auditoriums, so having a permanent home for the Symphony was really important and has really become part of our identity.”

Since the 1980s, the NBSO has experienced a clear line of growth and expansion, which was aided by having this stable home. By the late ‘00s, NBSO was considered a resident company of Zeiterion, officially designating its special relationship to the venue. In 2017, they brought on the affable Yaniv Dinur to serve as conductor and music director. Like many regional symphonies, NBSO musicians play in multiple orchestras around New England and many hold teaching positions at colleges and universities. When he’s not in New Bedford, Maestro Dinur guest conducts other orchestras throughout the United States and Europe.  

David feels the relationship between the NBSO and The Z is more than contractual or even more than a strong partnership. “I would say it’s a shared vision and collaborative effort to support each other and serve our community together,” said David.

A memorable joint venture between the two organizations was in 2013. Actor/singer Matthew Morrison came to The Z and performed with the Symphony. The show was billed as “The Z and the NBSO proudly present An Evening with Matthew Morrison.”

“In a way, we’ve grown together,” said David. “We’ve greatly expanded our programming, our budget, and our staffing all during the same trajectory that The Z has done the same thing. We’ve both come a long way.”

Learn more about New Bedford Symphony Orchestra here.