“How ya doing today?” “Is it getting warmer out there?” “Been in this part of the Theater before?” “What kind of coffee did you get?”
It’s rare in our stare-at-a-screen society to find people who ask you questions, and who genuinely care about your answers. Frank Tavera does a lot of both – the asking and the caring – and it’s a main reason why the Palace Theater in Waterbury is garnering accolades from some of music and stage’s biggest names.
To know the success of the Palace today, you must first understand Tavera’s origins.
He was born and raised in nearby Bristol, Connecticut, the third of four kids in a closely-knit Catholic family. Frank is a first-generation Italian-American. Both of his parents were born in the Old Country.
Dad couldn’t speak a lick of English when he came to the United States as a teenager, but used his incredible work ethic to become a successful mason. Mom, no slouch herself in the work ethic department, ran everything at home with confidence and precision.
There was love in the house, and respect. Both parents asked you questions, and genuinely cared about your answers. Tavera calls the household, and his entire upbringing, “Idyllic.”
Tavera (far left) with his brothers and sister.
So in 1985, when his father asked twenty-something, UConn economics grad Frank to join the family tile business – well, told him he had to join the family tile business – Frank felt obligated.
“When I graduated college, my dad said, ‘Hey, you're not off the hook yet.’ Your brother and I are doing the ceramic tile now, and we can do the installation, but I need someone to run the store. That's how I got sucked in. It was one of those things where my parents had provided for us all of our lives, and the timing was right. It was pretty exciting, actually. I loved it.”
Tavera and his parents, on the day he graduated college.
Fast forwarding, Tavera Tile enjoys years of success, Frank amicably moves on from the business, he builds a group sales department devoted to the Phantom of the Opera for the Bushnell Performing Arts Center in Hartford, and works his way up to Senior Director of Programs.
And then, in 2002, Frank catches word of “a new opportunity.”
There’s a theater in Waterbury with a CEO position open. The theater’s beautiful. Well, the theater was beautiful, but it’s been dormant for nearly two decades. All it needs now is, oh, about thirty million dollars to get fixed up to its old glory.
The Palace Theater, prior to its restoration, circa 2004.
Beyond the multi-million dollar investment, all the Theater needs is a vision, a business model, performers, staff, revenue… you know, everything. “Starting a group sales department from the ground up is one thing,” Tavera pondered. “Starting an entire theater from the ground up is another.”
Or is it?
“I remember saying pretty emphatically, ‘I can do this’,” says Tavera. “This isn’t crazy. I can do this.” To him, it was essentially just a start-up, and he relished the chance to apply his entrepreneurial spirit on a grand scale. In the Palace becoming, once again, a thing – Tavera was resolute.
Kind of like knowing, at age fourteen, that the girl he just met named Deidre would be his wife.
“It was the first day of my freshman year in high school. My brother had gone out with her sister once, so the sister introduced me to Deidre,” explains Tavera. “I said, ‘Hey, nice to meet you.’ That was it, literally and figuratively. There was nothing beyond that, except me knowing that this was the girl I’m going to marry.” They didn’t date in high school, or most of college, but Tavera believes their relationship “was in the works in my head at all times, and fate just seemed to deliver.”
They’ve been married for over 30 years now, with three children. Frank credits “partnership” as the reason why the marriage is so successful, and as an aspect that makes the Theater work well in the Waterbury community.
Tavera, his wife Deidre and their children.
The original Palace was classic, and when I looked at it – maybe it’s my European Italian American roots – I said, ‘This screams this community.’
“It has a really warm European kind of opera house feel. I looked at it and said, ‘This is a gem that you need to polish up quickly,’ and fortunately, the funding was in place. In New York theaters, and Broadway, the attraction is the stage production. Here, people come because the attraction is the building, as well as the stage production.”
In addition to being architectural eye candy, the Theater embodies the original intent of a community space. The Palace is a wedding venue for many. The Waterbury Symphony and Brass City Ballet perform here. Post University holds commencement ceremonies here.
And if you’re a student at the Waterbury Arts Magnet School, the Theater is your auditorium.
“WAMS has in excess of close to 900 students. This was rebuilt specifically to be their performance home,” says Tavera. “They have access to the building through their own entrance way. They perform here. They learn technical skills.”
One former WAMS student recently returned to the Palace as a professional member of the Legally Blonde: The Musical stage crew, and dozens of WAMS alumni have made the performing arts their career.
Tavera is proud that the Palace is seen as a valuable asset to so many, but reminds us that it is just one organization in an arts and culture-rich area. “I am amazed by Seven Angels [the Waterbury-based Theatre in Hamilton Park which opened in 1992] and the quality of production that they deliver – both professional productions as well as community-based productions. There are opportunities for people to see entertainment in whatever form you want, and it gives a variety which I think is critical. And look at organizations like the Mattatuck Museum. The quality of artistry that they have been presenting is astounding. It brings in people from all over to see their exhibits and to engage with their programs.”
Since re-opening its doors with a Tony Bennett performance on November 12, 2004 – he was also the last performer in 1986 before the Theater closed – the Palace Theater has welcomed nearly two million fans to downtown Waterbury. Of last year’s theatergoers, seventy-seven percent were from outside of the City. “The Waterbury community is our fiercely loyal base,” says Tavera. “And now, we’re seeing folks from around Connecticut, as well as other states. The word about this jewel is getting out.”
The word is also getting out to artists interested in creating special performances.
Performers live off, and feed off, the energy that comes through the room. It's amazing to talk to them after the fact.
"When I ask how the show was, they say, ‘My god, the audience was so responsive… I could feel their energy.’ That gives them more incentive and more motivation to perform, and perform better. The nice part about this facility is that, although large, it’s incredibly intimate. You hear everything, you feel everything. Every eye on you. Every side. The laughs. The applause. Artists don’t just talk about the fans, and the stage. They also talk about the building and the backstage. That's a true testament to the whole package. That's where the rewarding part comes in for me, because that's what we're supposed to be doing – providing entertainment, improving quality of life, giving a little joy, for both the artist and the audience.”