Jul 30, 2014
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Berman Family's Gift Puts the Arts Center Stage

The new Berman Center at the JCC is scheduled to open March 23 with appearance of composer Marvin Hamlisch.

In the next few months, the new Berman Center for the Performing Arts at the Jewish Community Center will feature renowned American conductor and composer Marvin Hamlisch, famous Israeli musician  David Broza and Broadway star  Patty LuPone.

But the biggest stars of all may just be Madeleine and Mandell “Bill” Berman, the local philanthropists who provided $4 million toward the $6.5 million cost of the theater at Maple and Drake roads, and toward its permanent endowment.

The theater, which opens with the March 23 appearance of Hamlisch, hosts Broza on March 26 and LuPone on May 23.

A Navy veteran, Bill Berman had a successful business career in the housing and construction industry as president of Bert L. Smokler & Co. from 1946-1975. He also has held volunteer leadership roles in Michigan, the nation and internationally. Now in his mid-90s, he remains active and sharp as a tack.

Madeleine Berman, a pianist and former music writer for the West Bloomfield Eccentric, has long been active with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Humane Society of Michigan, the Detroit Zoo and Americans for the Arts.

“My wife and I wanted to make a gift that would be useful to the Jewish and the general community,” Berman told the Detroit Jewish News last year, crediting his wife for the idea of donating funds for the theater. “We’re delighted by how enthusiastically it has been received." 

“It will really give the Center its heartbeat,”  JCC executive director Mark A. Lit said of the new performing arts center. Lit, who is an advocate and participant of theater and the arts as a performer, director and audience member, said the center is a natural fit for the JCC.

“Given all the kinds of programming we’ve done for a long time, it’s a natural to expand the portion of the Center dedicated to arts, culture and education,” he said.

The Berman Center will officially open its doors for the first time to begin the JCC Music Festival March 23, featuring Hamlisch.

A 'jewel' in West Bloomfield

Surrounded by open fields when it opened in '75, the JCC has expanded over the years to meet the needs of the Jewish community and surrounding area. Today, it houses the Janice Charach Gallery, the Shalom Street children’s center and the Jewish Ensemble Theatre in addition to its health club and sports facilities. There is a preschool and the high school, as well as a wide variety of events and programs.

“Many people don’t realize that the Jewish Community Center is open to the entire community,” Lit said. “It really is a gift to the general community from the Jewish community.”

West Bloomfield Township Supervisor Michele Economou Ureste agreed.

“The theater promises to be one of the jewels in the community,” Ureste said. “The township applauds the JCC for adding it to their wonderful complex.”

Ureste says she has already been working to connect a film production company to the JCC to help it the obtain revenue and to help realize the goal of attracting more film-related industry to the township.

On a more personal note, she said, “I’m looking forward to my children being involved in its theater program.”

State-of-the-art center will seat 350

Workers have been working for the past nine months to build, furnish and equip the 15,000-square-foot theater for its spring opening.  The theater will seat 350 people, but can be expanded to accommodate 600 people by opening two multi-use rooms at the back of the permanent seating area and expanding telescopic theatre seating that will open like bleachers from the back walls. It was designed by Neumann/Smith Architecture of Southfield and is being built by

State-of-the-art features include a computerized lighting system, cutting-edge sound and acoustic technology, and a pulley system that can move large set pieces, curtains and scenery with ease. A special sound system for the hearing impaired will allow patrons to plug in headphones at their seats or receive a sound feed on their hearing aids. There is also a full backstage with dressing rooms, a workshop and large wings on either side of the stage.

The performing arts center can be entered through the JCC lobby or through a dedicated entrance on the Drake Road side of the building.

“It will be a tremendous venue for viewing and performing,” Lit said. “The audience will be very close to the action. It will allow people in the area to enjoy the symphony and major performers in a professional environment right in their own backyard.”

Future plans include different festivals

The Hamlisch, Broza and LuPone concerts are only the beginning.  

The JCC plans to use the Berman Center to enhance its annual cultural offerings, which include the Stephen Gottlieb Music Festival, the Lenore Marwil Jewish Film Festival, the Gottlieb Festival of the Arts and the Center’s Jewish Book Fair, which is the largest in the nation. It is also planning to present a series of chamber concerts featuring 50-60 members of the DSO.

Planning is also under way for the establishment of the JCC School for the Performing and Fine Arts in September 2012. Lit says the school will offer training in music, dance, theater and the fine arts and “partner with some of the top presenters in the city.” 

The facility will also be available for rental to outside groups including professional and amateur theater groups. Interested parties can contact Eric Maher at the JCC, 248-661-1000.

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