Welcome back, Gateway Playhouse. Somers Point embraces you. And Philly's own Andrea McArdle is hosting your welcome-back party.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony happened Wednesday, and this weekend, McArdle, the original Annie on Broadway, has plans for two cabaret shows: the reopening gala show at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and a Sunday matinee at 3 p.m.
"I thank God for regional theater," McArdle says. "You get the chance to do roles that keep your chops up so that when the big Broadway call comes, you're ready." (Although she's never performed at the Gateway, she did get her start down the Shore, as a 9-year-old budding starlet on the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, in Tony Grant's Stars of Tomorrow.)
"The people who brought the Gateway back and I are friends from regional theater and Broadway," she says. "I can tell you, they've done this right."
Opened as a warehouse in 1912, the building at 738 Bay Ave. has housed some kind of entertainment since the 1920s, be it for movies or plays or casinos. In the mid-1970s, it became a dedicated playhouse. Known locally as "The Pink Theater," it lasted until 2005, when the nonprofit that owned it closed it.
Now, the Gateway is back. It joins the Surflight Theatre in Beach Haven on Long Beach Island, which reopened with a full summer schedule in June. It's an encouraging trend for people who want to see theater thrive down the Shore.
The first fully staged production will be She Loves Me (Sept. 22-24 and Sept. 29-Oct. 1) by the Shaken Not Stirred Players, followed by Our Town (Nov. 3-5 and Nov. 10-12) by Fool Moon Productions.
"I can't wait to see this open," says Somers Point Mayor Jack Glasser. "Now we'll have a theater where professional companies can put on plays, and schools as well. It's fabulous for our town."
Resurrecting the Gateway, an intimate 220-seater, has been a labor of love lasting nearly a decade.
"We've been working on this since 2008," says Keith D. Cooper, executive director of the nonprofit Theater Collaborative of South Jersey (TCSJ), which bought the theater that year. To quote the website, "The Playhouse was gutted down to the cinder block and sand and has been rebuilt from the ground up" for a future of plays, concerts, musicals, and other events.
James Dalfonso is chairman of TCSJ and an actor: He played Archibald Craven in The Secret Garden at the Gateway in 1995. He says the drive to resurrect the venue was driven by love of theater: "When the Gateway closed, it left a hole in the community. We wanted it back because there was nowhere local to perform anymore. Watching it go from a shell to a finished theater, there were many moments I felt tears welling up." The tightly knit local theater community is, he says, "very, very excited."
The weekend after the two McArdle shows, the Shaken Not Stirred Players (Dalfonso's itinerant troupe) will perform their popular Broadway by Request show, in which audience members pick Broadway songs at random and the players do them in whatever order emerges.
"All I want to do is get through the next weeks," says Cooper. "I've pretty much been living here." He tells a fascinating tale of how The Local Nonprofit That Could found a way to renovate an old building without going into hock.
In the '50s, the Gateway hosted musicals with stars such as Edward Everett Horton, Constance Bennett, Veronica Lake, and Bess Myerson (the former Miss America starred in Tea and Sympathy there). In 1976, Paul Aiken Jr. took over the building and launched its '70s heyday. Calling it the South Jersey Regional Theater, he created a year-round schedule of live performances with casts that combined Equity actors and locals. Aiken died in 1999, and in January 2006, the city of Somers Point bought the building for $1.1 million. The city sold it to TCSJ "with a 10-year deed restriction," Cooper says, "because they wanted it to remain a theater."
Getting the beat-up building back into shape took money — but TCSJ did not take out any loans. "We did it all by grassroots fund-raising, matching grants, and other means," Cooper says. The collaborative entered the Pepsi Refresh Everything Project, for example: "You could submit an idea for a community project to Pepsi, and people would go online and vote," he says, "and we won three grants for $50,000 each from that." The city of Somers Point and the nearby Shore Medical Center also pitched in.
In the end, the collaborative and the theater emerged without a mortgage, "without owing anybody anything," as Cooper puts it.
The Gateway's first full season will be 2018-19. Cooper says he hopes for a season of two plays and six musicals, bringing back the Aiken-era model in which casts mixed Equity actors and locals. "We're trying," Cooper says, "to uphold the best standards of regional theater."
Everyone has pitched in, Dalfonso says: "We had at least four members of the city council who came in here, rolled up their sleeves, and helped us paint the place."