The lobby of Bridgeport’s Bijou Theatre is decorated with reminders of the entertainment world’s past. A 1952 jukebox, a Philco television set from the early 1950s, a couple of old-school radios and reels of well-worn 16mm film prints are on display. The Bijou itself is a happy piece of surviving history: it opened on Fairfield Avenue in 1909 and underwent several name changes before closing in 1996, only to reopen again in 2011 by Kuchma Corp. as a combination cinema and live performance venue anchoring the mixed-use Bijou Square development.
Once inside of the Bijou, however, it becomes obvious that nostalgia is being left in the lobby: a boldly decorative star field backdrop gives the venue a futuristic glow. Gary Peterson, the Bijou’s executive director, points out the audio changes that he installed since taking over the theater’s management in July 2017.
“We have a brand-new sound system,” Peterson said. “The movie sound system they had here was great, but they were using that for the music sound system and it needed its own. We also have a new digital board at control booth.”
Peterson also noted that he gave the Bijou’s backstage dressing room “a facelift” to better accommodate the venue’s visiting performers, along with a new outdoor backstage patio for what he dubbed “joking and smoking before the show.”
A former production manager at NBC Sports in Stamford who jokingly insisted that he “went into television 100 years ago because I wanted to make music videos,” Peterson said that he was initially unable to pursue his music-focused interests due to being in the Connecticut television market, which was skewed to sports broadcasting. “And I was married and I had kids and there was opportunity in sports,” he added. “But I was never a big sports junkie.”
Inspired by the success being enjoyed by Infinity Music Hall in Norfolk near the Massachusetts border, he began planning to find a small venue where he could stage a funky mix of live music acts. He investigated some long-defunct movie theaters in Naugatuck and Watertown, but the renovation costs were prohibitive. The Bijou became available after a hiccup in theater management briefly resulted in its closing in the summer of 2016. An interim operating team was not able to continue for the long haul.
With a mix of auditorium and cabaret-style seating, the Bijou can accommodate 190 patrons for a show. Since taking over the reins at the Bijou, Peterson has focused primarily on presenting live music acts. Tribute bands have been popular with local audiences — the latest is Completely Unchained, a Van Halen tribute act, is slated to appear Sept. 29. Tribute presentations to Jackson Browne, the Rat Pack, Billy Joel, Steely Dan, Madonna and Ozzy Osbourne are on tap for later in the fall.
“The bands that come here rave about this place,” Peterson said. “They love the sound of the room, they love the configuration and the uniqueness. It’s a nice plus that I didn’t expect — the bands kind of gush when they come here.”
As for film presentations at the Bijou, they have been mostly limited to WPKN-FM’s monthly series of music documentaries and, sporadic indie film endeavor, most recently the screening and awards presentations for the 48 Hour Film Project. “I was happy for that,” Peterson said. “They had done business here years ago and I was glad to have them back. I would like to get more short-film festivals.”
While live shows are primarily on Friday and Saturday nights, along with an occasional Sunday matinee, Peterson is not keeping the Bijou dark for the remainder of the week. Instead, he maintains an active calendar for renting out the space to companies, nonprofits and private parties. The diversity of those events can be quite eclectic.
“We had a wedding here a couple of weeks ago and it really turned out well,” he said. “The couple got married on stage and we brought tables on the stage for the head table and then we cleared it off for the dance floor. We also had Star Distributors here to premiere a new brand of Corona (beer), so they had all of their salespeople in here and used the screen for a PowerPoint presentation. And there was also a church group that used the Bijou to host a religious version of a TED Talk.”
Still, Peterson is always trying to find new ways to attract audiences. While he noted the increased level of pedestrian traffic in downtown Bridgeport has helped call more attention to the Bijou, entertainment trends are not completely in his favor.
“It’s hard to get people out of their houses,” he said. “The audience I am going after is an older and more mature audience. In general, if you have beautiful big-screen TVs and beautiful sound systems at home and the comforts of home — there is still something about being out in a crowd.”