The Garde Arts Center was created in 1985 as a non-profit performing arts organization in order to save and reuse the historic Garde Theatre, one of the few remaining historic movie palaces in Connecticut. Built in 1926 during the golden era of the motion pictures and vaudeville theatres, the recently restored Moroccan interior of the Garde Theatre, along with the new seats and state-of-the-art stage equipment, provide a very audience-friendly theatre venue in a warm and beautiful atmosphere. Today the Garde is becoming nationally recognized for its unique architecture and multi-faceted programming.
In fact, the Garde Arts Center is not just the Garde Theatre, but has become an “arts block” of historic buildings all being transformed into a multi-space center for arts, education, commerce, and community events. The four-story Garde Office Building, for decades one of the most desired professional and commercial buildings in New London, has been transformed into expanded lobbies, box office space and a 130-seat performance and function hall, the Oasis Room. The three-story Mercer Building provides offices for Garde administration and a historic function hall due slated to become a small second performance space. The one-story Meridian Building houses commercial and non-profit businesses and stage support space.
The Garde, Meridian and Mercer buildings were all built between 1924 and 1926 on the site of the baronial mansion of whaling merchant William Williams. The Garde Theatre sits on a portion of the Williams estate that had been purchased from the Williams family by Theodore Bodenwein, the founder of The Day newspaper. The newspaper magnate sold the land to the new theatre developers so that something would be built “for the good of New London.”
The theatre was built during the height of the movie palace era as a “photoplay house” by architect Arland Johnson, under the direction of Arthur Friend, a New York movie studio attorney who at the time was building six movie houses in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Named after Walter Garde, a Hartford and New London businessman, the Garde Theatre opened on September 22, 1926, with the silent film “The Marriage Clause” starring matinee idols Francis X. Bushman (1883-1966) and Billie Dove (1903-1997). The Garde was hailed by the press of that time “one of the finest theatres in New England.” Typical of the era, the theatre was a stage for vaudeville as well as film. Variety acts of music, comedy, acrobats and magic, were interspersed between the showing of feature films, comedy shorts, and newsreels.
For decades the Garde Theatre played a central role in the community life of New London and Southeastern Connecticut. Its ornate Moroccan interior, giant screen, and marvelous acoustics ensured that Warner Bros., who purchased the Garde for $1 million in 1929, would maintain it as one of the region’s most stunning and viable movie theaters. The Garde’s nontheatrical events included a national touring production of the play Tobacco Road in February 1953, and a televised showing in October 1964 of the Sonny Liston-Cassius Clay boxing match.
As New London faced the growing competition from suburbanization and malls leading to a decline in its economic health, so to the Garde, in the ’60s and ’70s, fell victim to declining retail, malls, multiplex cinemas, and television. Despite occasional blockbuster attendance as there was in 1971 for the screening of The Godfather, declining attendance forced RKO-Stanley-Warner to close the theater in 1977. In 1978, it was sold to a locally owned business Robertson Paper Box Company who, after attempting to operate the theater on a regular basis, sold the building in 1985 to the newly created non-profit Garde Arts Center, Inc.
In 1987, the Eastern CT Symphony Orchestra made the Garde its new home. 1988, the Garde hired its first executive director, Steve Sigel, and began presenting a full spectrum of performing arts series: dance, musical theatre, contemporary music, and family events. Notable performances from that period included Marvin Hamlisch, Itzhak Perlman (both in 1989), Johnny Cash and Tony Bennett in 1990, The London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas in 1992, and two sold-out concerts by Bob Dylan in 1998.
In 1988, the State of Connecticut awarded $750,000 to replace the theatre heating and air-conditioning system, the first of several major facility grants three successive Governors shepherded through for the Garde. The Mercer and Meridian buildings were purchased in 1993. In the summer of 1994, movies were added to the Garde’s live programming. That year began a $15.75 million fundraising effort – Campaign for the Garde 2000 – to restore and expand the theatre. In October 1998, the Garde opened with its new lobbies and storefronts and, one year later, the theatre opened with the theatre interior restored. The Oasis Room began to be consistently used by 2008 for mostly jazz, folk and popular music. The adjacent Mercer Building provides dressing rooms for the Oasis Room. The corner storefront of the Mercer Building on State and Meridian Street houses the Garde Gallery a community arts and meeting space.