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Sunday tribute will honor Duane Robinson, the Academy of Music’s former manager, biggest fan

  • Duane Robinson, the former manager of the Academy of Music in Northampton, stands in the balcony of the theater last week. A tribute to him will be held there June 23.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Duane Robinson, the former manager of the Academy of Music in Northampton, stands in the balcony of the theater last week. A tribute to him will be held there June 23.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Duane Robinson, the former manager of the Academy of Music in Northampton, stands in front of the theater last week. A tribute to him will be held there June 23.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Duane Robinson, the former manager of the Academy of Music in Northampton, stands in front of the theater last week. A tribute to him will be held there June 23.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Duane Robinson, the former manager of the Academy of Music in Northampton, stands in the balcony of the theater last week. A tribute to him will be held there June 23.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Duane Robinson, the former manager of the Academy of Music in Northampton, stands in front of the theater last week. A tribute to him will be held there June 23.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

Duane Robinson says he remembers sitting as a kid with his grandmother in the audience of the Academy of Music in Northampton and telling her that he wanted to one day be the theater’s manager.

“Talk about getting a wish,” said Robinson in an interview last week. Robinson did, indeed, end up managing the theater — for more than three decades.

In recognition of Robinson’s long devotion to the Academy, a group calling itself “Friends of Duane” and the theater will honor him at an event Sunday that includes a reception for the theater’s most stalwart fan, and a screening of his favorite film, the 1925 version of “Phantom of the Opera,” starring Lon Chaney.

Robinson, who says he’s “past 60,” grew up in Amherst loving theater and everything about it. He worked at Amherst Cinema while in high school, and later returned in 1961, after a stint in the U.S. Air Force, to be its manager.

Everything changed, though, in August 1971, when Robinson received a phone call from Thomas Mendenhall, then-president of Smith College and chairman of the Academy of Music board of trustees. Mendenhall wondered if Robinson might be interested in applying for the position of manager at the Academy of Music.

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Although Robinson was fond of his job in Amherst, he says, he resigned and began working as the manager of the Academy the very next month. It’s a position he held for 35 years, until 2006, when the theater’s board of trustees temporarily closed the theater and laid off the entire staff, including Robinson, for financial reasons.

Although his managerial job was done then, Robinson says, the Academy is in his blood, and he continues to work there part-time.

Rundown, neglected

Robinson says he was thrilled to have an opportunity to be the manager of the Academy of Music. He was so excited, he recalls, that he accepted the position without taking a good look around the building. In retrospect, he admits, that would have been a good idea.

As it turned out, the 79-year-old stage had been officially condemned by the state after a spiral staircase from a touring show had fallen, putting a hole in the stage. The theater that had been donated in 1892 to the city, making it the first publicly owned theater in the country, didn’t look anything like it does today, he says: Everything was battleship-grey, and, on top of that, he said, ropes in the stage area were in need of attention: “They hadn’t been replaced since who knew when, probably never.”

There he was — with the theater of his dreams to manage, but a stage that was unfit for performances.

So, he got to work: He and his staff began renovations, including giving the theater a fresh coat of paint. But, as with most old buildings, upkeep wasn’t easy: Not long after Robinson and his staff had freshened up the paint, the furnace exploded, covering the bottom floor with soot and forcing the theater to close temporarily while Robinson and his staff repainted.

Then in 1985, part of the ceiling collapsed, again closing the building. Thick horse-hair plaster came crashing down a half-hour before a showing of an Alfred Hitchcock film. Robinson tripped over the mess in the dark, after going to investigate the loud noise. Robinson saw to it that the ceiling was replaced with fire-resistant sheet rock — done the “right way,” he said.

Fortunately, Robinson says, he had the right kind of staff — all working together, to help him keep the building alive.

“It became, very soon, more than a job, more than what you earn in an hour. It was that they saw it as— I saw it as — doing something for your community,” Robinson said. “You’re saving something for your community. You’re saving something historic that should always stay there.”

Over the years, he says, there has been no shortage of adventures and tales, and plenty of stars who performed at the theater, including French actress Sarah Bernhardt, film star Mae West and illusionist Harry Houdini.

One of Robinson’s favorite memories involves a sold-out performance in the 1980s by opera singer Wilhelmenia Fernandez. As Fernandez finished her final song, Robinson says, flowers flowed onto the stage from the packed balcony, as he looked on, wearing a tuxedo that Fernandez had bought for him. He still has it.

“She told me I just had to be in black-tie,” he said.

Group effort

Bob Cilman, executive director of the Northampton Arts Council, and an organizer of the event, says Sunday’s program is meant to recognize how Robinson brought the Academy stage back from a state of disrepair, and created an environment where lively theater, music, dance and film could thrive. Cilman says he’s convinced that it’s thanks to Robinson that the theater is open and functioning today.

While Robinson says he’s honored by the attention, he insists he didn’t do the work alone.

“It is tremendously nice to have a tribute, but it’s not me who did it,” he said. “None of that could be done without a good group of people behind you, staff-wise, who knew the true, unique worth of that building, and that’s why it happened.”

And, even though Robinson is still a presence at the theater, where he greets customers and does odd jobs, Cilman says he didn’t want to wait any longer to pay tribute to the Academy’s biggest fan. He says he was especially keen on seeing the event through before he leaves his post as director of the Northampton Arts Council in September.

“The important thing is that it’s happening, and it’s something that really should happen,” Cilman said. “Duane lived and breathed that place. It was his baby in a lot of ways.”

Sunday’s reception to honor Duane Robinson begins in the Academy of Music lobby at 5:30 p.m. “The Phantom of the Opera,” accompanied live by The Alloy Orchestra, begins at 7.

Tickets for the reception, which include admission to the film, cost $50. Tickets for the film only cost $15. To reserve, visit the Academy of Music box office, 274 Main St., Northampton, or www.academyofmusictheatre.com.

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