PORTLAND — For years, Deering High School’s drama and music programs have grown bigger than their historic auditorium, which was originally designed in 1942 for lectures and very small music performances.
But now the Clinton W. Graffam Auditorium may actually accommodate its uses, thanks to a $100,000 renovation project.
In 1982 the auditorium stage was expanded using
6-by-8 foot movable platforms. The extension gave performers more
space, but also created a safety hazard.
Meanwhile, about a quarter of the original 700 seats were broken and smelly. Setting up for shows was tedious. It took a entire day on a ladder to setup the lighting for a particular performance. Plus, the sound system had to be setup and torn down before and after each performance.
“When I first came here, I was really blown away by how deteriorated (the auditorium) was almost in every aspect,” said music director Gil Peltola, who came to DHS six years ago.
That changed after the renovation project brought the auditorium into the 21st century.
DHS Principal Ken Kunin said the auditorium, originally dedicated in 1974, will be rededicated to Graffam, a band director at the school for 33 years, during the March musical, “Anything Goes,” running March 27, 28 and 29.
“The biggest thing is to celebrate the progress we’ve made over the last year and a half,” Kunin said.
The $100,000 restoration was financed by a $35,000 allocation from the city’s capital improvements budget and $65,000 in donations, mostly notably a
$25,000 gift from Lowe’s.
Despite the large corporate donation, the fundraising effort really started with the
students themselves and trickled over to alumnus. Both the classes of 2007 and 2008 donated $5,000 each.
“The first (student donation) was a total surprise, but the second one I had an inkling,” DHS Principal Ken Kunin said. “Rather than have extravagant proms, they decided to have less extravagant proms and give back to their schools.”
Kunin said most of improvements were made using volunteer labor, allowing the school to invest about $45,000 in lighting and sound equipment. The changes allows the facility to better utilized as a learning environment.
“It really becomes a classroom, as it should be,” Kunin said.
Peltola said the upgrades will give students a real-life lesson in setting up and running light shows. While the old lights could not be moved once they were set up, the new lighting can be controlled by computer software with a click of a button
Meanwhile, the auditorium now has a built-in sound system onstage and there have been speakers added throughout the house, including the dressing and rehearsal areas backstage so performers can stay tuned into the live show while getting ready.
The first phase of renovations focused on house seating. A group of about 20 parents and a handful of students spent three Saturday afternoons replacing and tightening bolts in addition to steam cleaning the fabric. The group then installed new carpet on the floor.
The second, and most important, phase consisted of reinforcing a temporary stage expansion that has been a hazard to performers, Peltola said. About 27 years ago, a handful of front row seats were removed to make
way for a 25-foot stage expansion, which was done using temporary planks.
“There always these little spaces and we were always tripping on it,” he said. “The stage was really ratty.”
Volunteers reinforced the rickety structure using particle board and Masonite panels. Carpenters also installed wooden stage skirting, giving the stage a permanent feel.
In addition to regular class and school gatherings, the auditorium hosts about 30 major performances a year. Peltola said the improvements will simply make for a better experience for both students and the community.
“This benefits everyone,” Peltola said.
In the long run, Kunin said a comprehensive, multimillion renovation of the facility is needed. That’s why volunteers fixed equipment rather than replacing it, he said, and the biggest investments were made in lighting a sound equipment, he said.
“There are a lot of things that could and should happen to make this a more modern facility,” Kunin said. “But this still brings it light years ahead”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]

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