Arts center’s new name will memorialize local philanthropist

Arts center’s new name will memorialize local philanthropist

As part of a gala event on May ‘1, the Bergen Performing Arts Center will formally rename its main performance space. The theater will now be called Russell Berrie Hall, in honor of the late philanthropist and for the foundation that spearheaded the recent campaign to revitalize the facility.

Formerly known as the John Harms Center, the theater closed its doors on April 14, ‘003. A group of community leaders created BergenPAC a few weeks later to preserve the Englewood theater, which was built in 19’6.

"Mr. Berrie was a visionary who was a part of preservation of this theater for decades," said David Rodriguez, executive director of BergenPAC. "The foundation … was one of the key catalysts to rejuvenating this theater and bringing it back to the level of programming that it currently enjoys."

The foundation provided a $3 million matching grant to BergenPAC in late ‘004. Other donors followed, providing sufficient funds for the theater to reopen 18 months later. The grant, which will derive from three sources, will be used to build organizational stability and enhance programming.

The foundation will contribute the first million by matching every gift from PAC board members. The second installment will consist of gifts from center patrons, and the third from the community at large. The foundation awarded the first part of the grant in the summer of ‘005.

"It’s meant to create a larger circle of givers," said Angelica Berrie, president of the Russell Berrie Foundation and chair of the BergenPAC campaign. "It cannot depend on just a few donors. It’s a very challenging thing to fund arts, but it’s so vital to the growth and spirit of the community. It’s why we structured our gift and invite others to join us. It increases the chance of success for this to be a sustainable model in our community."

The PAC is currently testing a program to create a magnet school for the arts, as well as residency programs for area youth. This past fall, it launched a dance school geared toward area young people; more than 300 signed up.

"We feel that we are going to continue to raise the bar on the quality of the presentations you see at the theater, but most importantly the quality and outreach of the education programs [offered by] the theater," Rodriguez said.

The May ‘1 event will feature performers Tony Bennett and Dionne Warwick, among others. All proceeds will go toward BergenPAC’s educational initiatives.

"I would like for it [BergenPAC] to be a vibrant gathering place," Berrie said. "Kids who are never exposed to arts can’t possibly appreciate it. That’s my goal: for the kids to have a place to enjoy everything the arts have to offer."

Created in 1985, the nonprofit Russell Berrie Foundation seeks to promote the continuity and enrichment of Jewish communal life. Russell Berrie was on the board of the John Harms Center for many years and was personally a great admirer of Harms himself, Berrie said.

"It really is from the heart," Rodriguez said. "Mr. Berrie, during the time I knew him, and Angelica, who has kept that same flame burning, have been leaders in so many areas. There really is no one I could think of that would be more appropriate to name that hall after."

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