Community theater is always a labor of love, and sometimes many years of labor are needed before the curtain rises.
The Mainland area of Atlantic County has hoped and waited for more than a decade for the historic Gateway Playhouse in Somers Point to get back on its feet. Even after dedicated professionals and enthusiasts began work in earnest to restore the 116-year-old theater to operational status, it took about eight years to bring the project to fruition.
Besides the usual challenges of renovating an antique building long neglected and raising funds to cover theater work and operations, Hurricane Sandy provided an unexpected setback for the bayfront theater three years into the project. Fortunately, Sandy relief funds later became available to help offset that damage.
At the end of last month, the long effort paid off, and Broadway star Andrea McArdle performed to a sold-out opening gala. From now through year’s end, the Gateway Playhouse will offer seven more shows.
In the 1980s and ’90s, the theater was the labor of love of Paul Aiken, who ran it. When he died in 1999, it went into decline and closed, and in 2006 Somers Point purchased the building with the idea of restoring it.
That got a big boost in 2009 with the leasing of the building for a dollar a year to the nonprofit Theater Collaborative of South Jersey. One member said at the time the group expected to have Gateway Playhouse up and running within two years.
That was overly optimistic considering the condition of the building, and then Sandy added more work to be done. The city secured key grants for the project from the N.J. Economic Development Authority and the New Jersey Historic Trust.
Capri Construction was contracted for the main work, and volunteers contributed the rest to bring the theater to opening night — including painting the interior to save $24,000.
The head of the Theater Collaborative figures the 240-seat theater can draw 16,000 customers to Bay Avenue each theater season.
That should be a boon for the restaurants, galleries and other businesses in the popular district.
The inaugural season includes an intriguing mix of musicals, drama and comedy. After the edgy comedy “Shade” in late October, the classic “Our Town” will be staged in November. Next up this month is the musical “She Loves Me,” and in December there will be six performances of the song-filled “Home for the Holidays.”
We’re glad to have this important addition to community-based culture at the Jersey Shore. Thriving theaters in Hammonton and Cape May have shown the important contribution performing arts can make to a city.
We’ve been patiently waiting for the Gateway Playhouse to return for a long time and will give it a try soon. We hope others will too.