For more than 45 years, the Providence Performing Arts Center (PPAC) has been the Rhode Island home of top-notch national Broadway tours and some of the biggest names in comedy, culture and music. Every night a show is on stage at PPAC feels like an opening night, especially when the lights dim, and the curtain rises to reveal the magnificent stage.
The 2022/2023 season opener TINA – THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL will be the twenty-first national tour to open at PPAC since 2008. The distinction of being the theatre of choice for twenty-one national tour openings has helped make this venue a nationally recognized and well-respected cultural institution, called the “Jewel of Weybosset Street,” located in the heart of Providence.
This Theatre has come a long way from that exciting day when The Loew’s Theatre Building, now known as the Providence Performing Arts Center, opened on October 6, 1928. Designed by architectural firm Rapp & Rapp, it has always been stunning, and has astounded visitors with its beauty and grandeur. For more than nine decades, the Loew’s Theatre Building has not only survived, but ultimately flourished, while undergoing various name changes, storm damage, and ongoing architectural restoration.
After opening in 1928, the Loew’s Theatre Building enjoyed several successful decades as a premiere movie palace; however, the venue began experiencing financial hardships and declining attendance in the early 1950s, due to the popularity of television. The Theatre also suffered damage from the New England Hurricane of 1938 and then Hurricane Carol in 1954. The damage from Hurricane Carol resulted in the removal of the theatre’s original Morton pipe organ.
In 1982, Lincoln W.N. Pratt assisted PPAC with finding the “Mighty Wurlitzer.” The 5/21 Wurlitzer Organ was built in 1927 and has five keyboards and twenty-one ranks and percussion that can produce many orchestral sounds, as well as sound effects that can be utilized when accompanying silent films. It is one of only three five-manual keyboard consoles built by Wurlitzer; this rare and special Mighty Wurlitzer has been an important part of this theatre since 1982. Mr. Pratt served as our House Organist until his passing in 1998.
World-renowned organist and silent film accompanist Peter Edwin Krasinski became our second House Organist in September 2020. The PPAC staff has worked with Mr. Krasinski on producing seasonal recorded concerts; you can view these Wurlitzer concerts for free at ppacri.org/wurlitzer
In 1972, the theatre changed its name to the Palace Concert Theatre, where it mainly presented rock concerts; unfortunately, the Theatre continued to fall into disrepair and to lose revenue. In 1976, through the efforts of Mrs. B.A. (Sylvia) Dario (one of the many champions of the Loew’s Theatre Building), the building re-opened as the Ocean State Theatre, where it returned to its historic movie palace roots. The Ocean State Theatre experienced limited success, and as a result, the building’s owner, B.A. Dario, considered demolishing the historic theatre.
Local community figures, including then Governor J. Joseph Garrahy, then Chairman of PPAC’s Board of Trustees Bruce Sundlun (Governor of Rhode Island, 1991 – 1995), then Providence Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci, Jr., and Mrs. Dario, fought valiantly to save the building. Mrs. Dario told The Providence Journal, “I remember coming here as a young person and thinking I was walking into a fairyland. I would like my little grandson to bring his grandson here. This will be here long after I am gone.”
They began to discuss transforming the Ocean State Theatre into a center for the arts to preserve the theatre and to also help revitalize the downtown Providence area. In 1977, the Loew’s Theatre Building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1978, the theatre was purchased and saved by seven founding members: Citizens Bank, Fleet National Bank of Rhode Island, Old Stone Bank, Outlet Company, Providence Journal Company, Rhode Island Hospital Trust National Bank, and Textron, Inc. The Ocean State Theatre became a non-profit private corporation and was called the Ocean State Performing Arts Center.
In 1982, the Ocean State Performing Arts Center changed its name to the Providence Performing Arts Center, as a way of honoring the City’s commitment to saving the venue.
As the Providence Performing Arts Center, the Theatre has evolved and thrived through the efforts of past and current board members and administrative staff, making it one of the most successful, not-for-profit theatres in the United States. In the summer of 2022, Pollstar named PPAC as one of the top ten theatres in the U.S.!
Significant projects include a full-scale stage house expansion in 1995 and an historically accurate restoration of the Grand Lobby, Arcade and House. These improvements allowed PPAC to present large-scale touring productions like THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, MISS SAIGON, WICKED, and Disney’s THE LION KING in Providence.
In 2000, the state-of-the-art electronic marquee was first “lit” by actor Robert Urich. In 2002, the theatre commissioned former RISD professor Dan Dailey to design a magnificent chandelier, which hangs in the House Proper. The chandelier was installed in 2004. In 2005, accessibility for patrons was improved and an elevator was installed for the first time.
PPAC was brought into the digital age with the installation of LED display screens on the Marquee and video digital boards in the Arcade in 2012.
These additional restorations to the Loew’s Theatre Building have been made over the seasons so that the Theatre can be enjoyed for years to come. The carpet and wall fabric, faithful to their original designs, have been replaced. In April 2022, the ticket kiosk, which served as the Theatre’s original box office, was restored; the project included removing cracked granite stone panels and replacing them with new black stone panels. During the winter of 2020/2021, new, custom terra cotta tiles were installed and exterior lighting was added to the Theatre’s Weybosset Street façade. The meticulous and historically accurate façade restoration and installation was performed by Consigli Construction, with beautiful lighting designed by Evelyn Audet Lighting Design, LLC. Preserve RI and the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission (RIHPHC) honored PPAC in 2021 with a Rhody Award for this Historic Preservation Project. You can learn more about this project by watching this video profile, produced by Preserve RI for the 2021 Rhody Awards.