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Brandon Town Hall gears up for an exciting season

The Brandon Town Hall has come a long way since a group of local residents, who call themselves the Friends of Town Hall, got involved two decades ago.
At that time, the 158-year-old building had fallen into disrepair and was primarily used as a dumping ground for old sewer bills.
“When we were cleaning this basement up, we found some of the strangest things,” recalled Dennis Marden, president of the Friends of the Town Hall, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing the 1861 building back to its former glory. “Old cigar boxes, matchbooks, bottles and cans. We found a tin of Neshobe Coffee that had been made especially for a resident of Brandon, Elizabeth Gallagher,” Marden said, adding that old show programs and playbills, as well as stage light bulbs of all sizes, were also among things that were found in the basement clutter.
Today, the craftsmanship of the Brandon Town Hall is on full display when you step through the tall doors into the building. The high ceilings boast outstanding acoustics for the myriad shows that take place there throughout the year, the basement has been refurbished and is the site of many municipal activities, the stage has been expanded, the windows refurbished and show curtain replaced.
But it has taken a while to bring the shine back to the building.
It all started in 1861, when the town of Brandon bought the land at what is now 1 Conant Square for a new town hall. At that time, the town had a population of roughly 3,000. When the building was finished, the cost was a few cents over $7,280.
The Town Hall served as the town meeting place and since it had a stage, variety shows were also performed there.
“It wasn’t all that different than the way it’s used now,” said town historian Kevin Thornton. “There was more of a Vaudeville circuit back then though; comedy acts, singers, excerpts from Shakespeare plays.”
In the early 1900s, the town hall also contained a jail cell that was used as the town drunk tank, which was moved several years ago during renovations to the police department across the street. For a while in the 1970s, the building was used as a shop class for the high school, and it was once used to house a teen center as part of the town recreation department.
But over the years, the building fell into disrepair. As upkeep became more and more expensive, the town held fewer events there. The building stopped being used in the winter because it was too expensive to heat.
In the late 1970s and through the ’80s and ’90s, the once magnificent Town Hall became a dumping ground for old sewer bills. Boxes and boxes of old documents began to pile up in the basement of the building, which still had a partial dirt floor.
LOTS OF RENOVATION
The Friends of the Town Hall was created in 1998. With state grants and fundraiser campaigns and a pledge of $10,000 a year for 14 years from the town itself, the group got busy.
First, the old concrete stairs at the front of the building were replaced and a lift was installed in 2002, at a cost of $45,000. The crumbling portico was replaced and the exterior was repainted as well as adding new theatrical lighting and curtains for the stage.
Next, workers began cleaning out the basement and removing all the junk that had been taking up space. Old boxes of documents were removed and three pianos were dragged out.
“We all put a lot of work into cleaning out the basement,” Marden said. “Kathy Rausenberger was here every single day.”
Former president of the organization Mei Mei Brown, who led much of the clean up and renovations, stepped down in 2011 and Marden, a former theatre teacher at Neshobe, took the reins.
In 2012, a $200,000 renovation took place that added new bathrooms, two meeting rooms and a stairway between the backstage and the basement.
The building is now totally handicap accessible and the town put in a sidewalk around to the basement.
“We’re not a town organization, but we work very closely with the town,” vice-president Richard Baker said. “We got a pretty good deal on furniture from Central Vermont Public Service when they were bought out by Green Mountain Power and we’ve held state meetings here as well as all the town functions.”
The basement now has an entirely different look after improvements to the walls and tiles were done, the group replaced much of the lighting, heating and electrical systems throughout the building. The town now holds selectboard meetings in the basement and it’s the town’s voting place.
The Friends also refurbished the 10 windows of the main auditorium, each consisting of three panels and which stand 13 feet tall. The glass had to be taken out and steamed, and all the rotted wood was removed and replaced. That project cost the group $30,000.
The stage was done with matching grants at a total cost of $29,900. It had previously been extended from the original size of six feet deep and 24 feet wide, and last January was extended two more feet to make the stage now 32 feet deep and 54 feet wide, including the wings. There are 5,000 screws in a grid pattern holding down the stage floor.
All in, the group has raised and spent $1,042,856 through grants and donations — all of which has gone back into the building, and that’s not counting the thousands of hours of volunteer work.
And they’re not done yet. The group would still like to fix the balcony and add air conditioning.
“We also need to repair the slate roof, sometimes you can see daylight when you’re in the attic,” Marden said. “But that is going to cost about $300,000.”
All are projects for another day, he said.
ON WITH THE SHOW!
Since the building has been renovated, new life in the town’s entertainment and arts scene has taken root. The Friends of the Town Hall are also behind the programming that takes place in the building from May to December, with the town recreation department taking over from December through April. This year, they are gearing up for the first event of the season, which will be the Otter Valley Junior/Senior Prom on May 2, and then show season starts.
“We try to get good quality entertainment while still keeping the ticket prices affordable, a lot of the shows are free will donations,” Marden said. “The sponsors make a big difference in keeping those prices as low as they are.”
Over 3,200 people went through the doors last season, Marden recalled, saying the Friends hope that number will be even higher this year.
“The events are finally a year-round thing now,” Marden said. “We are almost self-sustaining at this point.”
Marden and Baker said that it is not difficult to book the acts, although the fees the performers charge have gone up in recent years, and they noted one other difficulty they faced — starting the shows on time.
“Folks in Brandon are notorious for being late arrivals,” Marden said. “Not just here, but church, everything. If we start the show at 7:30 and they are still trickling in at 7:45, it can disrupt the show.”
But that’s show business.
Late arrivals or not, after the high school prom, they will be showing a Harold Lloyd silent movie on May 11 and the next week they will hold the Beatles For Sale concert — and they’ll feature 28 more shows and events before the season winds up on Oct. 31 and they are still looking for sponsors for some of those shows.
That’s quite an impressive performance considering the Town Hall’s state of disrepair just 10 years ago.

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