The historic Eagle Theatre has been a vital draw for downtown Hammonton since its reopening three years ago.
Its importance was underscored recently by news that it will receive nearly $600,000 in federal funding to expand and improve.
The loan and grant money came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development agency, which financially supports essential facilities such as hospitals, health clinics, fire departments and schools in rural areas.
It is rare for the agency to provide funding to an arts center such as Eagle Theatre, but it reflects the playhouse’s unique role as a destination for out-of-towners and a gathering place for locals.
“I think that what makes the theater special is the community itself,” said Ted Wioncek III, one of the creative directors at the theater. “It’s a gamble, but the people in this town are up for it.”
The 6,000-square-foot building on Vine Street was packed Sunday for an afternoon showing of the original comedy Completely Hollywood (Abridged), one of six plays scheduled at the theater this year.
It also hosts a variety of community events throughout the year. On Sept. 29, for instance, it will hold a reception to honor “Boardwalk Empire” author Nelson Johnson as this year’s Hammonton Artist of the Year.
Next year there are seven main shows planned, and theater manager Scott Van Pelt said some of the $594,000 funding in from the USDA will go to lighting, sound and other equipment that will make those performances pop.
“These are going to be huge shows,” said Van Pelt, mentioning musicals including “A Chorus Line,” “Hair” and “Little Shop of Horrors.”
The theater building dates to 1914, when it was a silent movie theater house. With the advent of sound film, it closed in 1926.
The property was used as a church, home and most recently a warehouse for an auto repair shop until about $250,000 in loans and donations helped completely renovate and restore the structure.
Today it is run by a nonprofit of the same name, and although it welcomes donations it largely receives enough money through ticket sales and concessions to be self-sufficient.
But the theater means more to Hammonton than the entertainment it provides. By attracting people from out of town, it has been a boon to the stores along Bellevue Avenue and the rest of the budding arts district.
“You can ask any business owner on this street and they will tell you” that a lot of their customers come to town to see a show at the Eagle Theatre, Van Pelt said.
Melissa Eppler vouched for that. She worked at the nearby Casciano Coffee Bar & Sweetery and said they constantly see people stopping in before or after a performance.
Eppler, of Hammonton, was at Sunday’s show with her mother, Alberta. They have gone to see several shows at the theater, and Eppler said she also performed there in a concert with the Hammonton High Jazz Band.
Following the Epplers inside were Colleen Murphy, of Cherry Hill, and Annie Flores, of Washington Township, Gloucester County. They are involved in the local theater scene, and they said the Eagle Theater is known for hosting especially good performances.
“Every production I’ve seen has been amazing,” Murphy said.
There are more than 200 seats in the building and nearly all of them were filled on Sunday. Tickets were $22 each, whereas tickets to plays and musicals in Philadelphia and New York often exceed $100 each.
Virginia Pyontek, of Hammonton, who was at Sunday’s show with her friend Marie King, said she paid to go see the musical “Rent” on Broadway and also saw the show at the Eagle Theatre, and she said she liked the local performance better.
The two women said they have been to half a dozen shows at the theater and think it is now a key element to the quality of life in the town.
“It’s a great little place to go,” King said, “and the community really uses it.”
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