Kevin Riordan: Woodbury theater bounces back from quake damage

Posted: December 01, 2011

Thanks to a $12,000 gift, the show will go on at the earthquake-damaged Woodbury Sketch Club.

Masonry repairs are under way, and A Christmas Story opens Friday at the venerable schoolhouse-turned-theater, where the Aug. 23 temblor opened vertical cracks on the brick exterior.

"They went from top to bottom on two corners of the building," club president Frank Myers says. "We shut down rehearsals."

While it turned out that the 122-year-old Glover Street building wasn't in immediate danger, the damage wasn't covered by insurance.

"And if it wasn't patched before the winter," Myers, 63, says, "rain or snow or ice would have gotten in and made things worse."

Enter the Woodbury Olde-City Restoration Committee, a civic group that raises money and provides grants for projects that enhance historic infrastructure.

"Our 15 board members all know what the Sketch Club does for the community," says committee president Heidi Louis, a mother of three who grew up in and lives in Woodbury. A private organization founded in 1977, it has funded the restoration of the city's train station as well as two historic Centre Street houses.

And while the committee has given far larger gifts, "it was probably the best news we've had in 10 years," says Miriam Reichenbach, 61. A retired school librarian who got involved in the club as an actress in the '70s, she now serves as secretary.

"It's possible a harsh winter could have destroyed our building," adds Reichenbach, who lives in West Deptford.

Founded in 1933 as a club for locals interested in the visual arts, the Sketch Club quickly evolved into a community theater organization after its debut production, a play called Seven Days.

How's this for irony: The club put on its first shows in the now vacant G.G. Green building, which the city may demolish - partly as the result of structural damage from the Aug. 23 earthquake. Louis and others are hoping to save the enormous former retail-office-theater building at Broad and Centre Streets.

A different civic-minded angel played a key role in the earlier history of the Sketch Club. A $50,000 grant from Mobil Oil was used to structurally transform the former West End School on Glover Street into a 100-seat theater.

Now in its 78th season, the club has presented more than 200 comedies, dramas, and musicals. It provides an outlet for aspiring thespians of all ages and affordable live theater for local audiences.

Except for the occasional musician, no one gets paid.

Like their brothers and sisters in other South Jersey groups, such as Haddonfield Plays and Players and the Burlington County Footlighters, the Sketch Club Players put on shows for the sheer love of it.

They're people like Karl Miller, a graphic designer from Pennsville who since 1988 says he has done pretty much everything behind the scenes and on the boards at the Sketch Club.

In A Christmas Story, he's playing the father - a role immortalized by Darren McGavin in the 1983 movie. And yes, the production's authentic-looking props include the film's famously shapely, fish-netted "leg lamp" and the equally popular "you'll shoot your eye out" air rifle.

"We've got two leg lamps," says Myers, an accountant who lives in Woodbury Heights and has been involved with the club for about 20 years, 10 of them as president.

He proudly shows me around the building, where props and sets are shelved and stacked and patrons can enjoy coffee in an upstairs gallery/lounge.

"We're 100 percent self-sustaining from ticket sales and donations," Myers says, adding that the operating budget for a typical four-show season is $35,000.

But there's no money left over for improvements to the building, a beloved and fabulously funky space that nevertheless lacks modern amenities and is not handicapped-accessible.

After the earthquake hit, "we were scrambling," Myers says. "But when the restoration committee became aware of our problem, they stepped right up to the plate. We never dreamed they would contribute as much."

"We wanted to see this wonderful piece of the community continue," committee president Louis says, adding that the show "absolutely" must go on.


Kevin Riordan:

To view video about repairing the Sketch Club Players building in Woodbury, go to

www.philly.com/sketch


Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at http://www.philly.com/blinq.

 

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