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Very Important Places: The Rite Stuff

by Meg Favreau
…From the pages of Camden County Advantage…

Collingswood’s Scottish Rite Theatre sets the stage for arts & culture.

If you ask Jerry Chambers, the director of the Collingswood Foundation of the Arts (the organization that runs the Scottish Rite Theatre), what his job is, Chambers is quick with a joke. “My title is director, but I call myself the ‘or’,” meaning, “janit-or, fix-or ... I do everything.”

Chambers may joke, but he also feels lucky to be working at the Scottish Rite Theatre—especially when you consider that 12 years ago, the Freemasons, who built the space as their temple in 1931, almost sold the building to people who would have leveled it and built a hospital in its place. But thankfully, says Chambers, “Collingswood saw the value” of the 1,000-plus seat theatre, and the local government—led by Mayor James Maley and Commissioner Joan Leonard—stepped in. It took five years to negotiate the deal, but now Collingswood has a 50-year lease on the building. Chambers, who has lived in the area all his life, is thrilled: “You cringe when you see a charming theater being bulldozed and they put up a Rite Aid,” he says.

Since coming under the jurisdiction of the town, the space—which consists of a gorgeous theatre and ballroom—has housed events ranging from wedding receptions and awards ceremonies to theatre productions and concerts. Even though the space wasn’t originally built for music, Chambers says the acoustics are “near perfect” and that although the theatre has 1,000-plus seats, it has an intimate feeling. The great acoustics and the intimacy might also be part of the reason why David Crosby famously called the Scottish Rite Theatre, “the coolest place I’ve ever played.” And he isn't the only big name to have played there—Joan Baez, Kenny Loggins, and Blues Traveller have all done so as well.

Of course, as a big old building, the space isn’t without its quirks—including some reported ghost sightings. If a ghost exists, “it’s a good ghost,” says Chambers. “We’ve experienced certain things where lights have gone on and off, doors open and close ... and some people say they’ve seen the gentleman.” Although Chambers hasn't seen the ghost himself, he thinks that the spirit is most likely William Leonard Hurley, who lived in the mansion that now serves as the front of the building. When Hurley, who was a member of the Knights of Columbus, died, his wife decided to sell the building to the Freemasons, who weren’t on good terms with the Knights—and that might be why Hurley is still puttering about.

One of the most important aspects of the theatre for Chambers, though, isn’t the quirky, ghostly happenings, the amazing concerts, or even the beautiful stained glass windows that were imported from London and Florence—it’s what the space can provide to the community. The Scottish Rite Theater is where the Collingswood Community Theatre performs (they’re “really incredible” says Chambers, while also noting that they’ll be performing “Oklahoma!” at the theater in October). As time goes on, he hopes the Scottish Rite will host more and more events, including summer camps for acting to help get young people interested in the arts.

“We want to continue growing in a good, positive way,” says Chambers. We doubt even the ghost could argue with that.

Published (and copyrighted) in Camden County Advantage, Summer 2009.
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