Katharine Cornell must be rolling over in her grave. Cornell, a star of theatrical performances during the 20th century and a seasonal resident of the Island, was the benefactor for the Katharine Cornell Theater, which is located on the second floor of Tisbury Town Hall. She also commissioned the majestic Stan Murphy murals inside on the auditorium walls.
Like it or not — even if there is no codified agreement — the town made a pact when it accepted that donation from the foundation funded by Cornell’s father, and that agreement should be respected.
We were stunned when our reporter came back from the Nov. 30 meeting of the Tisbury select board with photographs showing that the theater was being used as office space. The meeting wasn’t originally scheduled there, but had to be moved after a last-minute problem with heating at the Tisbury Senior Center.
Reporter Rich Saltzberg also shared an anecdote from town administrator Jay Grande that he intended to move his office up to the second floor. (No matter what sugarcoated version of this story you may have read elsewhere, Grande doubled down on his plans to move upstairs during a conversation with Saltzberg days later, telling him he intended to move the employees currently using the space back downstairs and he would move upstairs, along with human resources coordinator Pam Bennett and executive assistant Elena DeFoe.)
How can that be?
We set out to find if there was some written agreement between Cornell and the town governing use of the theater space. We asked the town clerk, who directed us to the town administrator, who told us there is not any such agreement. We also asked Bow Van Riper, historian and researcher at Martha’s Vineyard Museum, who said the museum doesn’t have any documentation beyond the 1971 Tisbury town report. Here is what that stated: “In restoring Association Hall, Miss Cornell and her fellow trustees have hoped to add to the pleasures of the Island by providing an attractive setting to encourage the performance of plays, concerts, films, and other entertainment, so that once again the hall will serve as a social and cultural center, much as it did when it was owned by the Vineyard Literary Association nearly a hundred years ago.”
Even if there is no written agreement readily available, the use of the theater as office space is not in the spirit of the gift Katharine Cornell gave to the town.
In 1974, Tisbury renamed Association Hall, as it was previously called, after its generous benefactor, and rightly so.
We can certainly understand the need to use the space during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Office spaces needed to be distanced to ensure that employees could do their work and stay healthy. Meanwhile, no one was going to indoor performances, so the theater was sitting empty.
But with a vast majority of individuals being vaccinated against COVID and the largest threat having passed, distancing is not as much of an issue. Indeed, the Island boards of health recommend wearing masks indoors, but it is no longer a requirement.
So the need to use this venerable space for desks and chairs has also passed, and the Katharine Cornell Theater should be returned to its glory as a place where performance — even by the select board — can be enjoyed once again.
We are particularly troubled that the two members of the select board — Roy Cutrer and John Cahill — took a pass when our reporter tried to ask them about the use of this space for offices. They are elected to represent the residents of Tisbury, and should either be able to defend the theater’s use as offices or instruct the town administrator to work on another solution to the town’s space crunch.
We’ve been inside town hall, and understand that employees are working in tight quarters. We also understand that it’s not ideal to have the town’s other departments in an annex miles away. And we’re more than aware that this probably isn’t the best time to ask voters for money for a new town hall, with an $82 million school project being completely funded by taxpayers.
None of that changes the fact that this particular space should be considered off-limits when it comes to town offices.
In her story about Cornell’s Island legacy for Arts & Ideas magazine, published by The Times, Kate Feiffer wrote, “Katharine Cornell was an actress, a philanthropist, a friend, and a patron of the arts. She traveled the world, but she found her true home, here, on Martha’s Vineyard.”
We hope Cutrer and Cahill will listen to the people who are speaking out, and instruct Grande to find another way to meet the town’s need for additional office space.
In theater terms, the town offices need to exit, stage left.