Showmanship and patience have paid off for Joel Schiavone, who for five years has cultivated an image as the man who could save New Haven’s downtown, have fun and make a fortune doing it.
“Piano rags filled the air as waiters and waitresses bedecked in Gay Nineties clothing served the libations. A woman in a bear costume mingled with the crowd; a mime ‘sang’ songs of the era. Outside, a horse hitched to a carriage whinnied in the crisp, winter night.
And who was in the carriage, trotting dignitaries up and down the street? Who else but Joel Schiavone, New Haven’s flashiest developer, a flamboyant 46-year-old who believes — and proves — that showmanship is as much an ingredient of success as business sense.
The event was the opening last January of Schiavone’s refurbished Warner Apartments and, as with everything else he does, Schiavone wanted people to notice. For the past five years, he has carefully cultivated an image as the man who could save downtown, have fun, and make a fortune doing it.
Last month, his efforts paid off. The Board of Aldermen and city administration gave their blessing — and some financial backing — to Schiavone’s dream of a restored $21.5 million Shubert Theater and entertainment district replete with trendy shops, a music hall and the constant shenanigans of jugglers, singers and actors.
Scheduled for completion by Christmas 1983, the project, encompassing 14 buildings with 57 retail stores and 20 food outlets, is the largest in downtown since the New Haven Coliseum was built in 1972.
Although Schiavone will have little to do with the operation of the Shubert Theater portion of the project — he and New Haven construction magnate Ed Fusco just have to restore it — the rest of the complex will be a Joel Schiavone production all the way.
‘You’re not doing a real estate project, you’re doing a happening. It has to be orchestrated from beginning to end,’ he said.
For this project, Schiavone intends to be the band leader.
‘This is the heart and soul of New Haven. It’s a major attempt to restore (the city’s) ego,’ he said. ‘Very rarely do you get a chance to make money and do some good at the same time.’
If Schiavone, a slight man with whisps of dark hair not quite hiding his receding hair line, has worked hard on his image as a showman, he clearly is not concerned with his image as the head of a multi-million dollar company. He favors sports jackets and slacks over three-piece flannel suits; the door to his office carries the name of a former tenant of the building, Connie’s Beauty Salon.
But he owns, among other things, the Connecticut Limousine Service Inc. and a minor league hockey team, the New Haven Nighthawks. He has the limousine service to make money. He bought the hockey team in 1978 to change the image of the city.
For hockey season openers, he skates onto the ice dressed in a red tutu, blond wig and falsies.
‘I do things most people think are outrageous. I don’t think they are,’ he said.
Schiavone talked about his latest enterprise during interviews in the College Street office building he bought when he decided New Haven needed his kind of pizzaz. This time, he’s set his sights higher than ever: the Shubert Theater/Shubert Square project is his biggest so far.
‘I’m doing it to make money, nothing else,’ he said as he lay on his office couch, shoes off and shirt collar loosened.
As the conversation continued it became apparent Schiavone has a second motive. He’s never done anything like this before and it’s a challenge to see if his creative ideas will actually mesh and achieve the effect he is after.
‘It’s one thing to design a building and another to design a block… It’s a real fear of mine that it will be cold and austere,’ he said.
The idea of an entertainment district was conceived during Schiavone’s years on the road in the 1960s playing the banjo and operating nightclubs across the country.
Although the concept was initially greeted with silence by city officials, Schiavone persisted and started launching into what was to become a familiar diatribe: Yale was letting its back yard turn into slums; New Haven banks and business, by not investing in the city, were contributing to its decline and city officials were doing little to reverse the trend.
Finally, in Mayor Biagio DiLieto, Schiavone found an attentive audience.
As approved by city officials, the project will use a redone Shubert Theater — once the proving ground for Broadway shows — as a drawing card to keep office workers downtown and bring suburbanites in. Once there, Schiavone promises, there will be plenty of places for people to spend their money.
How did he come to be the designated developer?
‘I was the most persistent and consistent. I started talking about (Shubert Square) nine or 10 years ago and I’m still here,’ he said. ‘I’ve proved I’m interested in downtown. I’m clearly the only person who’s established his credentials.’
It also didn’t hurt that Schiavone is willing to raise the full $14 million cost of the entertainment district.
‘I don’t happen to think there’s much risk,’ Schiavone said. ‘There’s a lot of good economics in this project if it works. In real estate, if it doesn’t work right away you don’t lose your money — it just takes longer. Sooner or later it will work.’
But as Schiavone is quick to point out, for this project to work ‘it needs the skills of a showman.’
That’s where Schiavone’s background comes in. After graduating from Harvard Business School in 1962, he bought his own bar because no other owners wanted him to play the old-time banjo music. He found the nightclub business to his liking and soon owned a successful nationwide chain of restaurants known as ‘Your Father’s Mustache.’
He started selling the restaurants after returning to New Haven in 1969, but couldn’t leave music behind. For the past 12 years, he’s played the banjo and performed antics for the Galvanized Jazz Band, which plays every Sunday in North Branford. When he opened New Haven — A Restaurant in the city’s downtown two years ago, it wasn’t long before the house band was a 1950s rock-‘n’-roll group, B.B. Hind and the Blue Mooners, with Schiavone singing.
‘He’s always a surprise,’ said Greg Thomas, a bartender at Schiavone’s Millpond Taverne in North Branford. For Halloween this year, Schiavone came as a raincoat-clad ‘flasher.’ With Christmas coming up, Schiavone is expected to appear once again as Santa Claus, covered from head to toe in lights.
‘If I had to play all the time I wouldn’t enjoy it; if I had to work all the time I wouldn’t enjoy it,’ Schiavone said.
As chief executive officer of the family-owned Schiavone Corp., he is responsible for ’12 or 14 companies, I don’t know how many.’ Among those companies that Schiavone either owns or has invested in are Connecticut Limousine, the Nighthawks, the Doktor Pet chain of stores and Southern Connecticut Cablevision, a cable television franchise.
The seed money for his diversified corporation came from a North Haven scrap metal business, Michael Schiavone and Sons, but Schiavone now spends little time at the company his grandfather started.
‘I don’t even think about that anymore… It’s been the same size for the last 25 years and will be the same size for the next 25,’ he said.
Most of Schiavone’s efforts recently have been directed toward Shubert Square. Ever since he formed his real estate division five years ago and started buying buildings near the theater, he’s been counting on the project going through.
‘I’ve got to be confident. I’ve spent so much time telling people it will work, I’ve got to be confident myself,’ he said.
There was never much worry among city officials and residents about Schiavone’s part of the project — if it doesn’t work that’s his loss — but there is an undercurrent of concern by some residents and members of the Board of Aldermen that, even though the city will not have to spend any of its own money on construction costs, an unsuccessful Shubert will cost the city a lot of money in years to come. Frequent comparisons have been made to the city’s experience with the Coliseum.
Billed as a key drawing point for visitors to the city, the Coliseum is a financial disaster, costing the city $2 million a year in bonded debt and hundreds of thousands a year in operating deficits.
The objections, however, were not strong enough to prevent the Board of Aldermen from voting 17-4 in favor of the project.
Now that it is approved, Schiavone is wasting no time. Work on restoring the 61-year-old theater began only days after the Board of Alderman gave the go-ahead. Under the terms of the agreement, Schiavone and Fusco, using $3.2 million borrowed from a New Haven bank at below market rates, $650,000 of their own money and a $535,000 second mortgage from the city, will do a ‘bare bones’ rehabilitation.
The city-backed mortgage is coming out of a $1 million state grant for renovation of the historic theater. The rest of that grant will be used for equipment, furnishings and start-up costs of the theater.
The city is also using a $940,000 federal Economic Development administration grant for the theater’s furnishing and equipment.
In addition to Schiavone’s investment in Shubert Square, the city is counting on other private investors to do $1.5 million in commercial improvements at the Crown Street Parking Garage and Taft Apartments.
The theater will then be leased to a city-appointed operating board. Because the theater is not expected to make any money for at least three years, the city will pick up the estimated $500,000 in annual operating expenses for seven years and pay $1.2 million in start-up costs.
The city also is giving Schiavone a seven-year tax deferral on improvements, doing street and sidewalk renovations and working to convince the state to move the nearby OTB parlor.
If the city hadn’t agreed to the Shubert restoration, Schiavone would not have gone ahead with his part of the project.
‘We will use the theater as a loss leader,’ he said.
For the $14 million entertainment district, Schiavone and his real estate and marketing team have planned a ‘Disney World-like approach to real estate,’ said Larry Brophy, president of the real estate company.
The sidewalks will be brick, there will be theme lighting and stores — mostly small ones selling just one or two products — will be carefully monitored to ensure their suitability to the project.
In keeping with Schiavone’s desire to ‘control the environment’ of Shubert Square, he convinced the city to ban all street vendors except those with stores in the square. He also plans to have retail advisers helping merchants decide the motif of the store and what will be sold.
Schiavone’s financial return is a cut of the profits — a provision that will be put in every lease.
But, most important to Schiavone will be the artistic element — the street entertainment, concerts by the New Haven Chamber Orchestra and the acts his entertainment company can bring into the Roger Sherman and College Street theaters he own.
‘Arts bring in the people,’ he said. ‘The more people you bring downtown, the more money you make. The only way to do that is to create excitement and we do that well.'”
-Excerpt courtesy of Newspapers.com, Hartford Courant, Connecticut, “Dream for a Theater District Coming True,” by Kristi Vaughn, Sunday, December 12, 1982. (top) “This sketch is of the renovations that Joel Schiavone has proposed to turn College Street in New Haven into an entertainment district replete with trendy shops, a music hall and street entertainers.” Image courtesy of Newspapers.com, Hartford Courant, Donna Coveney, Sunday, December 12, 1982