In 1920, the Victory Theatre opened as one of the finest theaters in Holyoke After four decades, the theatre closed its doors, but the building remained a historical landmark in the Paper City. 

The Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts, or MIFA, acquired the building in 2009 with hopes of hopes of bringing more arts and culture to the area while keeping the historic character of the 100-year-old theatre intact. Recently, MIFA was able to move forward with renovating the Victory Theatre and broke ground on the project.  


Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: In 1920, the Victory Theatre opened in Holyoke and was one of the finest of its kind in the region. After four decades of service, the theater closed its doors, but remains a historic landmark in the city.

In 2009, the Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts, known as MIFA, acquired the building with the hopes of bringing more arts and culture to the area and keeping the theater’s historic character intact. Recently, MIFA was able to finally move forward with the renovation and has broke ground on the project.

I spoke with Donald Sanders, the executive artistic director at MIFA, to hear more about the history of the theater and the progress of the restoration.

Donald Sanders, MIFA Executive Artistic Director: What I love about the Victory, is it was one of seven theaters in Holyoke in its heyday. And it shows that Holyoke was an entertainment city, because it was created, basically, where there was no city before. So, in order to have people come and have a good time and have a rich, enjoyable life, there had to be entertainment options.

And no expense was spared on the Victory. It represents the state of the art, live theater and more, and ran theaters are still running on Broadway. You know, that’s how good the theaters are.

So, you know, I talk about the theater having an aura. It’s not a ghost, because ghosts have died. The Victory has an aura that is so alive, everybody feels it, who goes in there if they’ve never seen it before, or if they remember when it was like to be there watching movies — because it became primarily a movie house. And so I call it the heir the good heir of Holyoke. And it’s an aura and a sound that permeates our region because of how many people really enjoy learning and entertainment and laughter.

And that’s what the Victory represents. It’s a sixteen-hundred seat Broadway-style theater, the last of its kind remaining in the entire Connecticut River Valley. And it’s very important that for that alone, it’s worth saving.

Zydalis Bauer: Since 2009, when the Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts first acquired the Victory Theatre, the goal has been to restore it to its original glory. It’s a massive undertaking, and after 12 years, you still are persistent in making sure that that goal is completed.

Why has this been so important personally for you?

Donald Sanders: My history is in presenting, theater, music, dance, everything in the entertainment and literary arts. And, in order to do that, you need a really great space. And as we came to be doing things like the Gate Theater from Dublin and the Ivory Coast Opera, et cetera, we realized that we needed what we call in our industry, “a house” that could house these events that was actually, basically, under our control so we could bring in things, whatever we wanted, etc.

So, I have been persistent. I mean, people ask that question, because it’s so worth doing.

Zydalis Bauer: Now, the theater closed its doors in 1979 and been shut down for over 40 years. It’s acquired quite a bit of damage that’s going to be costly to renovate.

What resources are needed to accomplish this feat and what is the value of this restoration to the city of Holyoke?

Donald Sanders: Fortunately, the deterioration is only skin deep. You know, it looks terrible. But the point is it has it can all be put back exactly as it was because the building itself is solid as a rock. I take people in and, you know, I say jump up and down in here. You can’t. There are three steel beams. We had a really extensive architectural and engineering study done.

So, the deterioration is in things like plaster, paneling, things that have suffered. Those all go back, that’s what’s so great: this is a historic preservation project. And we’re so lucky to have in the state of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Historic Commission, whose job is to make sure that treasures like the Victory get saved and get put back.

Zydalis Bauer: And just last month, the Victory Theatre restoration plans were able to move forward and demolition began. So, what’s the update on that progress?

Donald Sanders: The building behind to the Victory at 134 Chestnut Street, which originally was house built in 1848 — I love history and I love architecture — and that it’s directly behind the Victory.

When we had the final architectural plans done, it became clear that in order to make the Victory be a 21st century facility where we could have just about everything we want, we needed to expand to have a service building or annex that could handle more dressing rooms, more office space, technical rooms, etc.

And so it became clear we needed to acquire that property and to take it down and to build all that, because we can’t do that inside the theater and retain the theater’s interior integrity.

Zydalis Bauer: Now, you said that you love history, so I imagine that you plan on incorporating some of that history in the renovation process.

Donald Sanders: Yes, one of my happiest moments was having a wonderful fireplace mantel and beautiful doors taken out of the house. And they are going to be incorporated in the designs of some of the new spaces inside the Victory. The Victory will have, believe it or not, five lounges, bars, et cetera, for people to enjoy before, during intermission, and after the show.

Zydalis Bauer: When we spoke on Connecting Point last August, I asked you if you had concerns that the pandemic would affect plans for the Victory Theatre. And here we are almost a year later, ground has been broken.

Donald Sanders: Yes.

Zydalis Bauer: Upon reflection of the temporary setback that the pandemic caused and the uncertainty for live performance, how does it feel for you to finally be able to move forward?

Donald Sanders: It’s one of the most exciting moments of my life. I think given the pandemic, people are going to want to enjoy being together again. And there is nothing like being together in a theater and with other people and sharing thoughts and emotions and laughs.