Playing “I Spy” at The Bushnell Performing Arts Center in Hartford, Connecticut

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Named after local civic visionary Horace Bushnell, The Bushnell Performing Arts Center opened as Bushnell Memorial Hall in 1930, less than two years after the groundbreaking ceremony,  and was fully restored in 2005 for its 75th anniversary. Known as a presenting center (because all sets and costumes are brought in for each show), The Bushnell is home to the 2,799 seat Mortensen Hall, the 907 seat Belding Hall, which opened in 2001, and several small halls and suites for concerts, lectures, weddings, corporate events, and performances.

Horace Bushnell, who attended both Yale Law and Divinity Schools, was an ordained minister and prominent city planner for Hartford in the mid 1800s. Bushnell and his wife, Mary Apthorp, had five children, all of whom championed for clean, public spaces, community gardens, and civil rights throughout the Hartford area in the 19th and 20th centuries. Their youngest daughter, Dotha Bushnell Hillyer, was inspired by a performance at the Springfield (Massachusetts) Symphony Hall to bring reputable performers to a cultural and community center in Hartford, as well as to honor her late father. 

Built by the same architect, although about half the size in stage size and seating, of Radio Music City Hall, The Bushnell is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The 2005 restoration included the preservation of many art deco elements, like portholes, ceiling angles, grand staircases, and vivid colors.

Today, The Bushnell offers free behind-the-scenes tours by appointment. Tours are extremely kid friendly, with knowledgeable guides who engage the entire family.

Travel Tips:

  • Visitors can request tours by filling out this form; we received an email back confirming our ideal date less than 24 hours after our initial request.  However, tours are scheduled around the center’s performance schedule. Tours are hosted by knowledgeable, friendly volunteers who are passionate about The Bushnell’s mission and the arts.
  • Free night and weekend parking is available in the lot along Capitol Avenue and at Buckingham Garage (corner of Buckingham and Washington Streets). Other options and a map of the area can be found here.
  • The theater is handicap accessible via an elevator, and restrooms are located on each floor and in the lobby.
  • There are tons of dining options surrounding the theater and throughout Hartford- see a good index here. The Bushnell Max Cafe is located on the first floor of the Center and is open two hours before a performance.
  • Other nearby family friendly fun includes the Connecticut Science Center, the Connecticut Capitol Building, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, the Mark Twain House
  • This is a good map of the complex. Tours typically last 90 minutes.

Find the following items while touring The Bushnell:

  1. The portrait of Dortha Bushnell Hillyer, who was inspired to create the Bushnell Center, in the Gray Lobby.
  2. The missing letter in the quotes from Bushnell’s writing, engraved above the doors of the Gray Lobby. (Hint: think about the Latin alphabet)
  3. The cast signatures from dozens of shows in the Projection Room. Located five stories up and 200 feet across from the stage, the Projection Room  has the names of various union workers including lighting and staging (their union affiliate numbers are listed next to their names; the local Hartford chapter is #84)
  4. The Chamber Stage in the Seaverns Room, and the balcony overlooking the outdoor courtyard, which is used for special events and socializing during intermission. 
  5. The spotlight on the 3500 square foot stage of the Mortensen Hall, perfect for a selfie!
  6. The largest ceiling mural, called Drama, in a theater in America on the ceiling of Mortensen Hall. Painted in 1929 on panels, the mural includes several distinct scenes, including a night sky. 
  1. The 5,263 organ pipes of the Austin Organ hidden behind the curtains on the side panels of Mortensen Hall.
  2. The numerous amenities added over the years to the Dressing Green Room. Various performers (who shall remain nameless) requested everything from addition of air conditioning and a private bathroom, to cable television and even for the color of the walls to be changed (this happened frequently!)
  3. The peephole in the Head Electrician’s Room that allows staff to check out the stage and make adjustments. Be sure to check out the walls of the room that are covered with hundreds of signatures from ONLY head stars from performances over the year.
  4. The cement wall of signatures  leading to the Belding Hall. The smaller of the two theaters is home to the Hartford Symphony Orchestra.
  5. The 600 pound draperies on the stage of the Belding Hall.
  6. The 14 foot long and eight foot wide Chihuly chandelier, called Ode to Joy, on display in the Autorino Great Hall. The 2800 pound chandelier is constructed from 600 individual pieces of fire red glass. 

Looking for more behind the stage tours? Check out our posts featuring Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall in NYC, and Boston Symphony Orchestra in Boston. Looking for more adventures in Hartford? Check out our Hartford City Guide, and our index of dozens of posts featuring family friendly spots throughout Connecticut. And follow along on our adventures on Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter.

Disclosure: Our family was given a private tour of the Bushnell; all opinions expressed are my own.

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  1. Very well done! I am a volunteer at the Bushnell and thought you did a wonderful job of informing on and highlighting all the B has to offer.
    Thanks for all your efforts,
    Holly Mathews

  2. The Bushnell looks like a beautiful theatre and I’d love to see a production. The free behind-the-scenes tours looks like a great way to learn more about the theatre.

  3. This looks like such an interesting and beautiful theatre – and obviously was a hit with the kids! They look like they were thoroughly enjoying themselves.

  4. I love the idea of behind-the-scenes tours and would want to visit the Bushnell Performing Arts Centre. I am always intrigued by the technical aspects of putting on a performance. How fun to do it with kids and do “I Spy”. Some fun things found. I will have to check out your other suggestions for tours.

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