Since its opening in 1986, Bristol Riverside Theatre has served as an entertainment haven for the borough and surrounding areas. From its mainstage seasons featuring hits like Cabaret to special seasonal offerings, including summer concerts, the cornerstone building on Radcliffe Street has largely helped Bristol’s business district become the hot-spot that it is today.
It’s been 36 years since BRT replaced a former movie theater. However, it’s also been 36 years since renovations have been made to the building.
According to co-producing director Amy Kaissar, there are a number of structural issues that need to be addressed — the roof sometimes leaks onto the stage, the basement floods and many of the 300 seats are falling apart. There’s also limited accessibility with no elevator.
But now, the theater is on the verge of getting a well-deserved rehaul thanks to support from the community and elected officials. State Sen. Steve Santarsiero and state Rep. Tina Davis recently announced that they secured $2 million in state funds from the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program, which issues grants to help economic development projects like this move forward.
“It was a no-brainer for us because of the importance that the theater plays here in the borough,” said Santarsiero during a recent Bristol Borough council meeting.
“The renovation of this award-winning cultural jewel will help enhance the area’s quality of life and economy, drawing new residents to this booming quarter of the commonwealth,” added Davis, who fondly remembers taking her children to BRT when they were young.
This RACP funding puts Amy and co-producing director Ken Kaissar even closer to the total project cost of $5 million. They had already secured $2 million thanks to a matching grant from the Grundy Foundation. With just $1 million to go, the Kaissars are excitedly finalizing construction plans, which Amy said are “lean and mean” and contain nothing superfluous.
Once complete, BRT will have two entrances — one on the river side at ground level and one on Radcliffe Street, a few feet down from the current corner door. Regarding the entrance facing the river, the current patio area and staircase will be removed and the building will be extended to encompass it. Theater-goers will be able to walk straight into the building at parking lot-level. The new Radcliffe entrance will also be sans-stairs.
Other upgrades include an elevator, brand new seating and roof fixtures.
“The bulk of it is making our building truly accessible, upgrading critical needs like the roof and the seats and our lighting and sound, just things that are aging. And then solving some problems that have been there from the beginning. Our basement floods. We need to waterproof the building, that kind of thing,” Amy told The Times. “It was originally a much bigger project, and then when the pandemic first hit, we said, ‘All right, let’s scale this back and look at what really, really needs to happen.’ ”
The Kaissars thanked everyone who is making this possible, especially Santarsiero and Davis, who are new to serving Bristol Borough following a recent redistricting. Amy stressed that Santarsiero and Davis jumped at the chance to assist even before they were official representatives of the borough.
“There aren’t too many places where you can say, ‘Hey, these are the things we need to keep doing what we do at the level with which we do it,’ and have every single person you meet with say, ‘Yes, I agree. Clearly that needs to happen,’ ” said Amy. “To be able to go to your representatives, get them on the phone, have them do a walk-through of the building, understand the project, turn around and figure out how to fund $2 million to make it happen, that’s not how these things go from my understanding.”
Since BRT still needs to fund another $1 million, donations are being accepted, as well as naming opportunities. For example, the main theater will be dubbed the John Martinson Theater thanks to a generous gift from the Martinson Family Foundation. Still available is the forthcoming glass-wall elevator, which will feature views of the river as patrons ascend, plus the atrium, new entrances and more. Future naming opportunities will include bricks, seats and other smaller pieces.
“We’re super excited about the campaign and renovation, about having a building that matches in appearance the work that we do on our stage,” said Ken. “We’re excited to have a building that says, ‘Really important work happens here and this town of Bristol takes great pride in theater.’ ”
At this point, construction will commence at a to-be-determined date. Those interested in helping Bristol Riverside Theatre achieve its $5 million goal can reach out to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 215-785-0100.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com