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Community , Community Projects , Arts & Culture

Beyond the Mission Statement: F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts

In our effort to create NEPA’s most comprehensive nonprofit directory, we came across hundreds of amazing organizations. Naturally, we wanted to share their inspiring stories.

In this series, we aim to highlight the hard-working organizations, the good people, the selfless volunteers, the helpers, the healers, the listeners, the comforters and all the great work they do. We hope that, through these stories, you too will be inspired to lend your time, your hands and your hearts. Follow along as we take a look beyond the mission statement.

A Legacy Worth Preserving

Since 1938, Wilkes-Barre’s Public Square has been home to one of the most opulent buildings in Luzerne County. First erected over eight decades ago as what was, at the time, a state-of-the-art movie theater, the lavishly-built art deco masterpiece has stood out as an impressive piece of local architecture.

But more than the grand and elegant structure that looms prominently downtown, the former Comerford Movie Theater, better known over the last 37 years as the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts, has been at the heart of arts entertainment from the outset.

Eighty-five years ago, the grandest of movie houses and the flagship of the Comerford movies 45-theater chain, drew in large crowds who flocked to see the latest movie on the big screen. Over time its transitioned from one movie theater chain to another, to a concert venue, and finally to the arts venue it is today.

It has always been a community gathering place to celebrate the arts. But since its reformation in the 1980s, the nonprofit organization has focused on their mission of fostering the arts and providing arts education to our community and beyond.

 

A Rich and Colorful History

 

If the walls of the F.M. Kirby Center could talk, they’d tell the tales of storied musicians, prima ballerinas, comedians and Broadway performers among a slew of others.

Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Ringo Starr and Tina Turner have all graced its stage. But it took the work of area philanthropists and the local community to save it from the disastrous effects caused by the floodwaters of Hurricane Agnes in the summer of 1972.

Enter Al Boscov. As the owner of the largest, privately-owned department store chain in the area at the time, his thanks to the community for patronizing Boscov’s was to purchase and restore the deteriorating building. In 1985 Boscov, August L. Simms, Fred Morgan Kirby II, co-founder of Woolworth’s, and the Kirby Foundation, as well as local businesses and civic leaders, raised over $3 million to purchase and restore the theater.

The doors to the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts opened on Friday, September 19, 1986 to a gala performance of the American Ballet Theater featuring prima ballerina Cynthia Gregory. Since then, over three million people have taken in a show at the storied theater.

 

An Artistic Mission

 

Executive Director, Joell Yarmel and Director of Marketing, Neil Prisco

The revitalization of the Kirby Center was always about more than just restoring a building.

Since day one, the intent behind the philanthropic mission was to foster the development of an appreciation of the arts, which they do by focusing on people, performance and preservation.

“The mission itself is to bring live arts, entertainment, and cultural experiences to this region to enhance the well-being of the area,” says Neil Prisco, F.M. Kirby Center’s Director of Marketing.

To fulfill their cause, the Kirby Center works hard to bring some of the best entertainment acts from around the world to Wilkes-Barre to showcase to our region and to celebrate together. “This has come in a lot of different forms of entertainment, but it also comes in the form of educational programs that we do. It’s a way of bringing people together for shared experiences right here in Wilkes-Barre,” he says.

 

Theatrical Programming

 

A lineup including musicians, comedians, musicals, ballets, family-friendly shows, ongoing series and events, with an emphasis on making the arts accessible to all, is its core mission.

Take, for example, the Laux Young People’s Theater Series, a program which sees thousands of local school-aged children each year attend live theater completely free. Another program, also underwritten by the nonprofit, is their Signature Series, which is culturally-enriching, family-friendly programing at an incredibly low-ticket price.

“We’ve always brought arts to the community, so in an effort to bring the community to the arts, we lower the price down to just $10,” Joell Yarmel, Executive Director of the F.M. Kirby Center explains of the Signature Series. “So, you’re seeing fantastic artists and fantastic performances at a regular bill for us, but a family of four comes in for just $40.”

Other staples to their nonprofit mission include the Kirby Kidz Summer Theater Workshop, master classes, the W. Curtis Montz Film Series (paying homage to the theater’s origin by showcasing foreign films that typically wouldn’t be seen in the region) and the Chandelier Lobby Series, which brings in lesser-known but worth-while acts (many who have gone on to become well-known stars) at lower ticket prices.

“It’s good quality programming that we’re bringing in at great prices and we’re seeing a lot of new people coming to those and saying, what is this place? It’s beautiful,” says Joell. “Then they’re going to multiple shows. They’re becoming members. And without even knowing it, they’re donors and supporters of the Kirby.”

 

Community Connection

 

Photo courtesy of the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts

The group is also consistently looking for ways to partner with area organizations.

For example, this past summer they worked with WVIA to feature local filmmaker’s films as part of their film series while Little Theater of Wilkes-Barre performed a shadow play to accompany a viewing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Puppy Pals Live, a comedic dog show coming to the theater on January 18th, is another example of community outreach. Featuring mostly rescued dogs performing stunts and tricks, a portion of each ticket sale will directly benefit Blue Chip Farm Animal Refuge.

“It’s finding those opportunities to partner with other organizations and help elevate them,” emphasizes Neil, “because we have an opportunity to give a megaphone in some ways and it raises everybody up.”

Thanks to the Kirby’s sponsors and supporters, the nonprofit is also able to offer free tickets to those who may otherwise not be able to attend live theater. When a show hasn’t sold out and seats are still available, the team makes the connections.

“We go out to the YMCA. We go to the CYC. We go to Family Service Association. Maternal Health,” says Joell. “And we say to them, get some of your families. Your volunteers. Your staff. Come out and have a good night on the Kirby Center and see a show on stage.”

“If we have an opportunity to help those less fortunate to get a break, to be able to escape for a little while, and get arts education right here and an opportunity they might not have otherwise, that’s really fulfilling,” emphasizes Neil.

 

Show Your Support

 

The 2023-2024 Kirby season was off to a strong start.

With a new management team in place, a new logo, and a season’s brochure packed with exciting entertainment, the venue was set to rebound from the days of COVID-19 closures and the slow return to normalcy.

But water damage seems to be an ongoing theme for the performing arts center. This past October the entire lower level of the facility was inundated with six feet of water due to a water main break. As a result, a number of performances and events had to be cancelled or postponed. The damage was substantial and included critical power infrastructures, newly redesigned dressing rooms, restrooms, a VIP bar, the Mohegan Pennsylvania Lounge, offices, gallery space, building storage and more.

So, now more than ever, community support is vital to their ongoing mission.

“We can’t provide arts education without a sound building,” says Joell. “And so, it’s not that we’re just trying to have a pretty building. We’re trying to get it back to being efficient. It’s certainly safe, but we need more bathrooms as we lost many of our bathrooms during the flooding.”

There are a number of ways to show your support including attending shows, becoming a member, supporting their annual Kirby Fest fundraiser, corporate sponsorship, or by making a monetary donation.

Over the summer, the Kirby Center’s lights will dim from June until September as they undergo planned upgrades to the rooftop air and filtration units utilizing funding from four Local Share Accounts. They’ll be using that time to prepare for an exciting new season, make building upgrades and expand on their new marketing initiative – merchandise.

“Every donation we receive goes to the bottom line of our mission. We underwrite, typically, between $500-$600,000 per year in programming for our community. That’s including our community outreach, our YPTS, our Signature Series, the master classes, Kirby Kidz and our films,” says Joell.

“When the lights are on at the Kirby, the downtown shines,” emphasizes Neil. “We have something here that most towns and communities don’t have. It’s comfortable. It’s warm. It’s inviting. The preservation of that, for the community, is important.”

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