By Maddy Vitale
Keith Cooper got his wish in August, when the curtain went up on the first performance at the Gateway Playhouse in Somers Point after nine years of more drama and suspense in making it happen than in any show ever featured at the theater.
“Nine years ago, I was just leaving Broadway,” Cooper, executive director of The Theater Collaborative of South Jersey, said in a recent interview. “I came home from New York to my house in Mays Landing, and some people asked if I could help them save the building.”
James Dalfonso, president of the playhouse’s board of directors, was one of those people who called on Cooper.
“It was a constant struggle to fund-raise. It was slow and difficult,” Cooper remembered. “We would get a little donation here and there, with dollars in a bowl at Bayfest, to some larger donations. We kept going. Now we’re here and it’s happening.”
The labor of love seems to be well worth it as Cooper proudly showed off the extensive renovations, pointing to tiles he said make the acoustics fantastic to cushy, sizable seating for 220 patrons, and the latest sound and lighting systems.
There is also a bonus area upstairs where members of the orchestra can play so the space in front of the stage is freed up for seating. There is even a closed off walkway behind the stage with doors, so the actors and performers can enter and exit as quickly and quietly as possible.
The building isn’t large, although Cooper couldn’t say for sure the exact dimensions. Certainly, it is an intimate space.
“We try and maximize the space,” he said.
Renovations to the 112-year-old building topped $1.2 million over nine years. Cooper said the theater closed in 2006 because the building was not up to code. Grants, such as Hurricane Sandy relief funds, helped make it possible to re-open, along with generous donations and support from the community.
Fast forward to months of shows since Gateway Playhouse reopened on Aug. 19.
“We’ve been busy. The past five months have been exciting and exhausting,” Cooper said.
Tickets to a show range from $25 to $35 and can be purchased at the door, online or on the phone.
Families can enjoy musicals, dramas, symphonies and other performances at a fraction of the cost of going to Philadelphia or New York for a show.
From its grand opening through the past five months, Gateway Playhouse had a full lineup of productions, including “She Loves Me,” “Marvin & Me,” “Shade” and “Our Town.” Its current production, “Home for the Holidays,” is replete with ’50s era costumes, décor and music.
Some cross-promotions the playhouse is doing in partnership with community businesses are helping both groups.
“Home for the Holidays” was Dec. 15 through Dec. 17. Patrons had their choice of 15 percent off their order at one of the participating local restaurants, including Gregory’s, The Anchorage, Tavern on the Bay and Doc’s Place. There is also ample, free public parking in two lots adjacent to the theater.
“The whole community has been so supportive of us, the mayor and council and the local businesses,” Cooper said. “The idea is that you can get a cocktail before a show at a local restaurant, or dinner after. It’s a way to drive business to the whole community.”
Gateway rents space for productions. While the theater is on the small side, on average, there is room for a cast of up to about 20 performers.
To help the theater with its operating costs, Cooper said donations are appreciated.
“We can always use more microphones, or lighting instruments. The best thing people can do to help is donate funds,” he said. “We always need to replace something. There is always something else we need.”
Karen Sutherland, like Cooper, is a staple at the theatre. Like Cooper, she performed on Broadway and also performs in some of Gateway’s shows. The two work together, to make sure everything runs smoothly.
“A lot of hard work went into this and continues to,” said Sutherland, Cooper’s assistant. “We are just so excited.”
The feeling of accomplishment comes from a great show, and a parking lot filled with theater patrons.
“We have a lot of great talent,” Cooper said. “I think the community is starting to catch on now that we’ve been here for five months. We need a good, solid year under our belt. This has been a wonderful start.”
While there isn’t a season subscription being offered yet, Cooper hopes to have one to present to the public before the new year. And while he didn’t name any productions set to perform yet, he said there are some amazing shows they are considering.
For more information or to purchase tickets to Gateway Playhouse, 738 Bay Ave., visit www.gatewaybythebay.org or call 609-653-0553.