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35 Years of the Z!

By Steven Froias

The historic theatre sitting on Purchase Street is so much a part of New Bedford’s cultural fabric that it’s almost a shock to realize that it’s only been around for 35 years – in its current incarnation.

The Zeiterion Theatre we know today was rescued from its ‘70s era Grindhouse fate in 1982. While I’ve got nothing against Grindhouse, it was probably a good move – otherwise the building may have gone the way of so many other abandoned or demolished one-time movie palaces in the city and been lost to us. 

As the Zeiterion Theatre, the arts center has grown over the last 35 years to become a true regional attraction that brings thousands to the city. I know – because I was once one of them.

Girls just want to have fun

Before I returned to New Bedford, I visited the city often and sometimes timed those weekends in the hometown to coincide with a show at the Z. A whole gang of us loved going to every Cyndi Lauper concert at the Z. It was incredible to see Cyndi – an amazing live performer – up close and personal here. Lauper tours the country, but seeing her in New Bedford at the Zeiterion was a special experience.

Special experiences are the Zeiterion Theatre’s stock in trade. Over the last 35 years, no doubt many thousands have collected their own Z moments by seeing a favorite performer or attending a theatre, dance or spoken word performance.

A treasured moment for me at the Z was probably not one of the venue’s highlights – but I think it says something good about the place and having it New Bedford.

Faithfull to the Z

Back around 2007, I was visiting for a weekend and was shocked to walk around the corner from School Street onto Purchase and see on the Zeiterion marque that Marianne Faithfull was performing –  that very night!

For readers unfamiliar with Faithful, here’s the quick 411 and an interview link: Marianne Faithfull is a British singer and songwriter. She achieved early fame in 1960s England – especially as Mick Jagger’s first very public girlfriend. She wrote the Rolling Stones hit song, “As Tears Go By” and recorded her own records as well.

She later achieved infamy as a serious user of heroin and by leading a squatter’s life that worked on her terms but probably didn’t fit many people’s notion of normal. After deciding to quit heroin – before it killed her – Faithfull chronicled it all in an excellent autobiography and then resumed a serious career in music with a vengeance.

Her iconoclastic approach to life gave her a cache of hipness and her fans include folks who remember her early work and fame and people like me who discovered her through the television show “Absolutely Fabulous” or with her 2002 CD, “Kissin Time,” featuring an alternative music roster of superstar guest stars.

I had seen Marianne perform at New York’s Irving Plaza – but was thrilled to get the chance to catch her in my hometown at the one and only Zeiterion Theatre! I bought a ticket right there and then and went to the show all on my own.

Now, Marianne Faithfull isn’t widely known and probably isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. She was selling out venues in New York thanks to the Williamsburg hipster crowd, but didn’t fare as well in New Bedford. The place was very less than half full.

But she walked out on stage and said, “We’re going to play the same whether there’s one person here or 1,000!”

And she did. She gave an amazing performance that night at the Zeiterion Theatre in New Bedford, MA. It was the type of show you see that cements a bond between yourself and a performer. Probably because, in a venue like this, you can touch her hand at the end of the night as she leans over the stage to thank the fans who did turn out and who were in seventh heaven watching this amazing woman give it her all just for them – for us.

The 2017/2018 Season

It’s a complex business running a performing arts center like the Z. Most people don’t realize that tickets prices aren’t set by the theatre, but are based on what the performers, acts or shows charge. It’s a tricky balancing act to hit the sweet spot and attract programming that’s popular, enriching and also fits within the budget.

Thankfully, the Z frequently hits that sweet – and if, on occasion, ticket sales fall flat they are still providing treasured moments for many. Like all of us who showed up that night to catch Marianne Faithfull on our own patch and in our special place.

Groundwork! is proud to help the Zeiterion Theatre fulfill its mission in the City of New Bedford by advertising in its program. And we – like many others – are eagerly combing their 2017/2018 schedule for a coworking night out at The Moth or any number of offerings just recently posted on their website.

We know it will be a special moment  – because it’s at the Z!

  • The Zeiterion Theatre celebrates its 35th birthday this Sunday, October 1 with a block party and a free screening of E.T. (also from 1982). Festivities get underway 684 Purchase Street at 1:30 p.m. with the block party, featuring food and games and Senator Mark Montigny, an early Zeiterion board member and a steady supporter in the state legislature, sharing the story of The Z’s beginning and cutting the first piece of cake. E.T. screens at 3:00 p.m.
Steven Froias