Arts angel to a theater in rural N.J.? USDA

Outside the Eagle Theatre in Hammonton, N.J., are (from left) its artistic directors, Ed Corsi and Ted Wioncek 3d, and board chair James M. Donio, who helped obtain USDA aid.
Outside the Eagle Theatre in Hammonton, N.J., are (from left) its artistic directors, Ed Corsi and Ted Wioncek 3d, and board chair James M. Donio, who helped obtain USDA aid. (CURT HUDSON)
Posted: October 01, 2012

A little semiprofessional theater amid the farmland of Hammonton, N.J., has become the beneficiary of more than a half-million dollars in grants and low-interest loans from a most unlikely arts angel: the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Eagle Theatre, in the center of what's known as the blueberry capital of the world, is wasting no time spending that money - its backstage area is filling with building materials and spiffy, soon-to-be-installed sound and lighting equipment, and construction has begun on a lounge-cum-wine bar for its patrons.

Eagle's 2013 calendar features an eight-show season that includes the first production in the area of Lombardi, recently on Broadway, and the big-cast musicals A Chorus Line and Hair. Coming up this fall: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the theater's perennially popular Rocky Horror Picture Show, and a holiday extravaganza.

The Agriculture Department money is coming directly to the theater in three acts, so to speak: a $23,000 grant to improve its historic building and its ticketing and computer programming; an $89,000 20-year loan at 3.5 percent interest, mainly to enhance stage equipment; and a 30-year loan of $482,000 at 3.38 percent interest, to buy its building.

"It's an unusual project for the USDA to finance," said Howard Henderson, the department's rural-development director for New Jersey. "This is a fascinating way we've been able to benefit a rural community."

The Rural Development program, financed by Congress, exists to strengthen or help establish facilities in rural communities that will improve downtowns, provide services, and encourage local activities. But money usually goes to such projects as firehouse restoration or, as in New Jersey's northern Sussex County, a plan for hospice units.

Henderson said he wasn't surprised when the Eagle Theatre applied for the money 18 months ago, because it was no secret around Hammonton that "we have feet on the ground in rural areas."

"But it's unique. I believe this is the first theater we've done in Rural Development in anybody's memory over, say, the last 30 years" - much of the time that such money has been available through the Agriculture Department.

It's not unusual for local politicians to join arts groups in seeking federal money; indeed, community theaters and arts centers in nearby Millville and Vineland have been given new life by communities that believe the arts help revitalize downtowns. In the Philadelphia area, that's also been a mantra in Media, Bristol, Souderton, Ambler, and especially Center City, where then-Mayor Ed Rendell championed Broad Street's Avenue of the Arts.

It was the same idea that led to the Eagle Theatre's revival in 2006, when a 6,000-square-foot warehouse - a block from the town's main street and within eyeshot of NJ Transit's station on its Atlantic City Line from 30th Street Station - was about to be demolished for a parking lot.

"I became interested in knowing its history," said Hammonton native Tracy Petrongolo, an independent filmmaker and at the time leader of Hammonton's first arts and culture committee. The Atlantic County town - population about 15,000 - is small enough that "if you ask the right people, you will learn the history of every building," she said, "and we found out that was the old Eagle Theatre."

It was opened as a silent-movie house in 1914 and sometimes had vaudeville action on its stage before becoming a warehouse only 13 years later. In the 1940s, a church moved in, and in the '60s, a local family bought it for use as storage for their auto-parts company.

The nonprofit Hammonton Revitalization Corp., along with residents called Friends of Eagle Theatre, took out a loan to buy and rehab the theater - money that most of the Agriculture Department's loan has replaced. No tax money was used to acquire or restore it; the town chipped in, with money and sweat equity.

"The Friends of Eagle Theatre themselves were actually in there with sledgehammers," said Petrongolo, who later ran as an independent on an arts platform and won a council seat.

Hammonton now has an arts district that includes the Eagle Theatre, a branch of South Jersey's Noyes Museum, a branch of Richard Stockton College, a dance studio, the longtime Hamilton Arts Center, and a dozen new working lofts for artists.

One night last weekend, the little theater on Vine Street began humming 20 minutes before showtime as about 140 people streamed in for one of the final performances of a two-act romp, Completely Hollywood (Abridged). The show, which affectionately mocks films, was given a high-style production and featured one of Eagle's two artistic directors, Ed Corsi, in the cast.

It was a crossover audience, you might say, ranging in age from young adult to seniors, and crossing racial and ethnic lines. That included Mexican Americans, who make up more than 20 percent of the town's residents and who have turned it into a South Jersey capital of lively Mexican restaurants.

Some carried in popcorn, candy, and sodas from the fresh-popcorn counter, a throwback to the 208-seat theater's early days.

Eagle is a semiprofessional house - "We pay actors a negotiable stipend," said its other artistic director, Ted Wioncek 3d - but it also deals show by show with Actors' Equity, the national actors' union, for some productions. Wioncek and Corsi say that, given its steady growth, they foresee a day when Eagle joins the ranks of major theaters by holding a standard Equity contract.

The show was about to begin, and the theater's board chairman, James M. Donio - a mover and shaker about town who has been a supporter since revitalization began - was there to greet audience members individually. He was the force behind the funding application to the Agriculture Department.

"Every step of the way, there was a lot of process and paperwork to go through to make sure they vetted a request from a theater," he was saying. "There's a lot of that with firehouses that apply - and this is a theater. And every step of the way, we could give them everything they requested."

The houselights were about to dim as the stage was illuminated for another evening of theater in the blueberry capital of the world.


Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, hshapiro@phillynews.com,

or follow on Twitter #philastage. Read his recent work at www.philly.com/howardshapiro.

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