Community applauds Garde's 'dynamic duo'
New London Steve and Jeanne Sigel, the husband-and-wife team who run the Garde Arts Center, were celebrated Sunday for their passion, intelligence and "workaholism," but most of the 100 people assembled at the Coast Guard Academy's Alumni Center spoke of another dynamic they've brought to the city: diversity and inclusion.
The Sigels have brought dance and opera and Broadway to the Garde, the former vaudeville theater that they helped nurse back to life over the past quarter-century. But the two city residents have also invited in all parts of the community, from inner-city kids looking to jam with Wynton Marsalis to suburbanites trying to relive their youth with a Bob Dylan concert.
"Try to imagine where New London would be if Steve and Jeanne hadn't come to town," said Leeland J. Cole-Chu, the Salem attorney who is just a few days away from becoming a Superior Court judge.
"What they do with what they've got is staggering," said Martin Olsen, the former mayor of New London and onetime governor of the statewide Kiwanis Club.
Sunday's Kiwanis event, held appropriately on Oscar night, honored the Sigels with the club's annual Lifetime of Community Service Award. The Sigels were chosen based on their name recognition and the hard work they put in to ensure the continuation of a vibrant downtown scene that revolves around the Garde.
"They're the heart of New London ... and the region," said Margaret Curtin, the longtime City Councilor and former mayor.
"The Garde is one of the most significant economic drivers in the city," added Ned Hammond, economic development coordinator for New London.
"Steve held the city together with the Garde," said Marie Gravell, a longtime volunteer for the theater. "Without Steve, it would have been an empty building."
Steve Sigel came to the Garde in April 1988 as its first executive director. Previously, a few groups had attempted to revive the Garde as a performing arts space much as the former Capitol Theater on Bank Street has seen a few fits and starts but they all ended in failure.
Sigel, as the community soon found out, wasn't a man who would tolerate failure.
"He was the right person for the right job," said Isabelle Singer, executive director of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra and a member of the search committee that hired Sigel. "He's the Phantom (of the Opera). He's always there."
Sigel said in a separate interview that he was intrigued by the opportunity New London presented, the challenge of bringing quality events to a relatively small city. The challenge became even more daunting with the advent of casino entertainment, which made it nearly impossible for top-name acts to sign on at the Garde.
Sigel, who oversaw a $15 million campaign to renovate the Garde and its 1,500-seat theater in the 1990s, met his wife Jeanne about two decades ago when she owned a marketing company called Island Design. She now works as the Garde's marketing director, and by all accounts Jeanne shares the same passion for the Garde as her husband.
"They are the dynamic duo," said Philip Michalowski, president of the Garde's board of directors and the main speaker of the evening. "They function as one force."
Michalowski said the Sigels have helped bring the once-Balkanized region together through their work at the Garde.
"They helped bring various communities together outside of New London and in," he said. "I think that was their greatest gift to all of us."
Picture by Tim Martin