The BPC Marks 40 Years
A Century-Old Cultural Landmark in Boston
“The Performance Center is Berklee's stadium,” says Rob Rose, vice president for special programs. “It's played a huge role in the history of the college.” Since the opening as the Berklee Performance Center (BPC) in 1976, two generations of future great singers and instrumentalists have tested their mettle on its stage as students. Paula Cole, David Rawlings, and Susan Tedeschi are among the many who have graced the BPC stage before launching their careers. Equally important, many Berklee students have gained valuable experience working as stagehands, sound and lighting techs, ushers, box office personnel, and more before embarking on careers in concert production. So while the BPC may not look like Doak Campbell Stadium at Florida State University, where countless football players have burnished their skills before joining the NFL, Rose's analogy is apropos.
In addition to serving as an important educational resource, the BPC is also one of Boston's premier concert stages for internationally celebrated artists. At the venue's grand opening ceremony on April 5, 1976, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis addressed the audience and called the newly renovated 1,227-seat facility “an outstanding contribution to the cultural resources of the city and state.”
True to Dukakis's words, the BPC has since hosted performances by Count Basie, The Temptations, Weather Report, the Talking Heads, Whitney Houston, Céline Dion, and hundreds more during four decades. Acts such as the B52s, Paco de Lucia, and Makoto Ozone are among the artists that have recorded live albums there. Additionally, the BPC has hosted NPR's annual New Year's Eve worldwide live radio broadcast for the past 10 years. “This hall is known internationally,” Rose says. “I've seen many tourists posing for pictures by the front entrance.”
Sixty-one years prior to becoming the BPC, the building at 136 Massachusetts Avenue opened its doors as the Fenway Theatre. In the December 19, 1915, issue of the Boston Sunday Globe the theatre was lauded as Boston's “newest and most up-to-date photo playhouse.” It was the first theater built in uptown Boston expressly for “photo plays” (movies), but some live entertainment was featured there, too. A 20-piece orchestra, a pipe organ concert, and “high class and popular singers” were part of the December 20, 1915 opening night festivities preceding a showing of the silent film, The Iron Strain—A Story of Alaska. Ticket prices ranged from 10 cents to 25 cents. Silent film idol Dustin Farnum, star of many early Westerns, appears in the movie, not coincidentally, playing a Boston society gentleman.
The Fenway Theatre was a popular movie house for Bostonians through both world wars and up until the 1950s when television made a dent in theater attendance. It narrowly avoided conversion to a giant First National supermarket in 1959. During the 1960s, the theater housed a bowling alley in its basement. After the adjoining property, the Sherry Biltmore Hotel at 150 Massachusetts Avenue, was damaged in a tragic fire on March 29, 1963, Bryant and Stratton Commercial School purchased both properties. Later, management for then-unknown Aerosmith arranged for the nascent rock band (including Brad Whitford '71 and Joey Kramer '70) to rehearse in the then-dilapidated theater as Bryant and Stratton contemplated demolishing the structure and constructing an eight-story building on the block.
Bryant and Stratton ultimately offered to sell the theater and the former hotel to Berklee in 1972. After extensive renovations, the theater reopened in April 1976 as the Berklee Performance Center. On the bill that night was a performance of a new work by faculty composer Tony Teixeira for big band titled "Jazz 1776–1976." The title commemorated the BPC and anticipated the bicentennial of Congress's adoption of the Declaration of Independence.
In the early days, many national touring acts began playing in the hall, and faculty concerts and educational events were booked around those dates. The college's annual commencement concerts were held there through 2003. Commencement honorees including Natalie Cole, Phil Collins, David Foster, Steven Tyler, Dianne Reeves, and others sat in with student performers on the BPC stage during those concerts through the years. Beginning in 1983, the hall became the home of the hugely popular Singers Showcase semi-annual concert series. By the 1990s, Rob Rose, serving as assistant to the Performance Division chair, began reserving more of the venue's schedule for various educational activities, including guest clinics, and increased number of annual concerts where students could perform and learn the technical side of concert production.
“I have been told scores of times for 34 years that the work-study stage crew position is the best job on campus,” says Brad Berger, the BPC's director of production. “Some students have said it was the best part of their Berklee education. We teach them all aspects of live-concert sound, lighting, and general stagecraft, things that are rarely taught in formal classes at the college.” Berger's former crew members have entered the live-entertainment production field, including Eric Marchwinski '10 (lighting programmer, Katy Perry, Usher, the Rolling Stones), Mike Marchetti '84 (New England production director for Live Nation), Warren Willis (DJ and stage technician for Demi Lovato, and Linkin Park), Josh Monds '12, and Bryson Camper '15 (production managers for Jazz at Lincoln Center Doha), to name a few.
Cathy Horn, senior director of concert operations, says of the professional shows booked at the BPC, “The pro shows contribute to the diversity and vibrancy of the event schedule. Whether brought in by a promoter or the college, pro shows bring name artists to Berklee's campus. That, in turn, brings the public here, increasing the visibility of the college and helping us build an audience for our college events.
“In the BPC, students get to perform in a professional venue and on the same stage as top touring artists. This setting also gives student employees working in the venue valuable experience working with and among artists, agents, and promoters.
“It's exciting and gratifying to see alumni return to the BPC as professional touring artists—and that happens quite often. Antonio Sanchez, Hiromi, and Grace Kelly have been booked as headliners at the BPC this season.”
“The BPC has been central in the showcasing and the development of Berklee students, faculty, staff, alumni, and legendary music makers from around the globe,” says Rob Rose. “Thousands of people have played and listened to music here for 40 years, and everyone leaves knowing they have been in a special place. The BPC will continue to serve as a great concert hall and classroom, providing unprecedented opportunities for Berklee students to showcase their artistic and creative talents.” You wouldn't expect anything less from Berklee's stadium.