Williamstown's Grand Theatre readies grand reopening

With the final dress rehearsal complete, director Lauri Hudson applauds and actor Richard P. Butler raises his arms in celebration.
With the final dress rehearsal complete, director Lauri Hudson applauds and actor Richard P. Butler raises his arms in celebration. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 16, 2013

Looking out her kitchen window, Kathy Small saw the roof of Williamstown's Grand Theatre down the street cave in, demolishing the venue like a wrecking ball.

"It was heartbreaking," said Small, 59, recalling the collapse in May 2010, which authorities attributed to the previous winter's record snowfall. "I've been in this house 34 years. They used to play $2 movies. It's a big part of the neighborhood."

Now, after haggling with insurers for $1.4 million in property and building coverage, raising $85,000 in donations, and enduring months of construction, theater owners plan to open the doors again for a grand opening Saturday with a production of the musical comedy Hairspray.

The venue has a higher proscenium and a new pit, among other additions, as well as a showcase for professional photography and a gift store.

Even as the Grand welcomes back theatergoers with a red-carpet event, cocktails, a show, and dance party, its owners say they face a challenge in recapturing its audience after being out of business for 21/2 years.

"We're having to reestablish ourselves," said Roy A. Wilbur, a board member of the Road Company Theater Group, which owns the Grand. "We've really had to rebuild our profile in Southern New Jersey."

Some patrons who had season tickets before the collapse have moved on to other theaters, Wilbur said. "We're going to have to bring some of them back into the fold," he said. "But we're doing that and we're prepared to do that."

During the Grand's hiatus, other theater groups sprang up, taking customers and actors with them, said Lauri Hudson, the board's president.

Nevertheless, season ticket sales are reportedly higher than they have ever been, though they account for only a modest portion of total sales. And the grand opening, where tickets go for $50 to $500, is sold out. "The mayor is coming," Wilbur said.

In Hammonton, N.J., the Eagle Theatre, which had been a silent theater in the early 1900s and later became a warehouse for an auto-parts store, reopened as a performing arts center in 2009.

"We've had success in building a strong patron base," said Scott Van Pelt, the general manager. "It's a challenge. But with hard work and dedication, which the Grand has, it's not at all insurmountable."

In addition to its main stage productions, the Road Company has held summer camps for youth, ages 8 to 18, since 2009.

When the theater was out of commission, the troupe held the camps at a middle school. That helped the troupe stay relevant and helped build its talent.

Jennifer Peacock's 13-year-old daughter, Amanda, has attended the camp since its inception. And starting with Thursday's premiere of Hairspray, Amanda will move to the main stage as part of the cast for the first time.

Peacock hopes the Grand, the main attraction of a downtown that is also home to a funeral home, a small Chinese restaurant, and a couple of pizza places, will be a draw for new businesses and restaurants.

For now, theatergoers such as Small are simply content to see one of the neighborhood staples come back to life.

"I don't want to put the money out to Philly or New York," she said. "To me, you're seeing productions just as good here for not as much money."


Contact Andrew Seidman

at 856-779-3846, aseidman@phillynews.com or @AndrewSeidman on Twitter.

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