When I saw “All Shook Up” at Westchester Broadway Theatre (WBT) on its opening night last March 12, who among us enjoying the jukebox musical about the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, would have imagined we were destined to be the last audience to see a show (or the succulent prime rib) at the venerable venue known for big-city entertainment without big-city prices.
The Great White Way had just announced it was going dark for the duration, and the following day Broadway’s Westchester outpost followed suit. WBT suspended all subsequent performances until further notice, hoping to strike up the band again by now.
Alas, it was not to be. Now never came.
After eight agonizing months of waiting in the wings for a return to the stage, the curtain has come down for good. In late October, the 46-year-old dinner theater in Elmsford was forced to post its permanent closing notice, a casualty of the COVID calamity.
Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me, Kate” opened the theater in July 1974. The first (and only) performance of “All Shook Up,” the theater’s 217th production, would prove to be its finale. You might say it was a dubious honor to be there, as I was, with my Yorktown friend Steve Schaefer, a talented songwriter and musician.
It turns out, though, that “All Shook Up’s” opening night was not the last performance on the WBT stage. Fittingly, there would be an unscheduled encore.
The fates demanded that there be one more performance, putting what actors call “a button” on the proud and eventful history of the theater.
At an informal gathering of the WBT faithful on Nov. 21 quickly arranged for auld lang syne by the theater’s longtime public relations director, Pia Haas, stage veteran Chris Jamison Matthews reached back in time to momentarily reprise her role as Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl” on that same stage decades earlier. Her poignant gesture was a fitting elegy, as she moistened many an eye and brought back a flood of memories with an impromptu, emotion-filled rendition of the show’s classic Streisand number, “People.”
In a post on Facebook, Bedford resident Matthews—who at one time was in the Broadway company of “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Annie”—channeled the passion and appreciation of the close-knit WBT community of local theater people, writing, “It is the last bastion of dinner theatre in New York State, and one of the last in the country.”
Before being rebranded as Westchester Broadway Theatre in 1991, it was known as An Evening Dinner Theatre, opening July 1974.
For proper perspective on the theater’s applause-worthy longevity, consider that it came into being the same year that Watergate felled President Nixon; that Hank Aaron broke the Babe’s career home run record; and that a new King of horror named Stephen appeared on the best-seller lists, with his debut novel, “Carrie.” Oh, yeah, and there were gas shortages and a recession.
The business formula for the new Elmsford theater, conceived by a couple of Manhattan ad agency “Mad Men” of the era—Bill Stutler and Bob Funking—seemed simple enough: offer suburbanites Broadway entertainment at a fraction of the cost of the real thing. Throw in dinner, free parking, and the relaxing convenience of a short drive from home.
Of course, no bold new idea goes unpunished when brought before the self-appointed gadflies who frequent public forums, so it took some doing for the theater entrepreneurs to get their plans past the negative nabobs and approved by the town of Greenburgh, so construction could commence in the village of Elmsford’s Cross-Westchester Executive Park.
According to an unpublished book by Gary Chattman, some residents with a vivid imagination claimed the clean-cut theater concept was a Trojan Horse for what instead would be undesirable adult entertainment, also known as a strip club.
During the hearing process, among those who lent their fabled names to the plan were relatives of none other than the two and only Rodgers and Hammerstein.
The theater’s pedigreed proximity to show-business royalty came full circle, ironically, when a descendant of another pair of musical giants, George and Ira Gershwin, tried to acquire the theater.
Todd Gershwin, though, was rebuffed by property owner Robert Martin Company, which instead has flipped the cavernous building to a new tenant who will gut it for use as a storage facility. (They at least could pay homage to WBT’s legacy by calling it The Best Little Warehouse in Westchester.)
THE PRICE IS RIGHT
In the 1970s, Broadway prices for top seats were well under $20, about one-tenth of the 2020 cost for comparable tickets. Dinner and parking not included, of course.
By contrast, in the first years of the Elmsford dinner theater, you could see a musical with Broadway talent, eat dinner, and park for free, all for the tidy ticket price of $12.95 weekends, $10.95 weekdays.
The theater address was local, but the producers’ ambitions aimed at casting top talent. They vowed to showcase performers who belonged to professional union Actors Equity Association, the industry’s gold standard.
Giancarlo Esposito, the bad guy on TV’s “Breaking Bad” and “The Mandalorian,” and Scott Bakula of “Quantum Leap” and “NCIS: New Orleans,” could be seen early in their careers on the dinner theater’s distinctive thrust stage, surrounded by audience on three sides. Also notable was a turntable center stage that magically levitated far above the audience for unfailingly dramatic effect in almost every show.
Other recognizable names who trace their beginnings to the house that Bob and Bill built are musical theater stars John Lloyd Young, a Tony winner for his Frankie Valli role in Jersey Boys, and Robert Cuccioli, who won several awards in the title roles of Jekyll and Hyde.
HALL OF FAMERS
The prolific producers—including Von Ann Stutler, wife of Bill—had an amazing run, earning them a place in the Westchester County Business Hall of Fame. They estimated that their shows have played to some 6 million people in the past half-century.
Clearly, even if it weren’t for COVID running roughshod over industries and business owners, times have changed for what might be termed throwback entertainment.
“It’s gotten harder today,” Bob Funking told Gary Chattman, whose working title for his book is “Only 25 Minutes from Broadway: A Tribute to Westchester Broadway Theatre.” “The audience has so many outlets for entertainment because of digital technology.”
As reported in The New York Times, the theater’s owners faced financial challenges prior to the pandemic.
Steve Calleran, longtime Evening Manager at WBT, and a longtime Yorktown resident until moving to Dutchess County in 2019, notes that “some people say dinner theater has passed its heyday. In the ’70s, there were more professional dinner theaters in Florida than in the whole country.” He recalls well WBT’s heyday, when some of its shows featured the same actors who had been in the Broadway production.
With 35 years under his belt at WBT, Calleran—who was the ever-present MC appearing on stage pre-curtain and at intermission—has seen it all.
LIP-SYNC OR SWIM
When Robert Cuccioli, who was starring in Yeston and Kopit’s (not Andrew Lloyd Webber’s) “Phantom,” broke his foot, local actor and Broadway veteran James Gerth stood in for him onstage, miming the physical movements, while Cuccioli (miked in a box overlooking the stage) did all the singing as Gerth—with the Phantom’s mask partly obscuring his mouth—lip-synced.
Calleran calls it one of the “most fabulous” theatrical experiences he’s ever seen.
Then there is the time that an elderly gentleman lost his way back to the audience from the lobby, as Act II was beginning of “Promises, Promises.”
The man took a wrong turn in the dark that landed him backstage. He opened a door, not knowing it was part of the set, prompting the male actor in the scene to ad lib to his female friend, “Were you expecting somebody?”
The next unscripted line came from someone in the audience, shouting, “Harry, what are you doing up there?”
What’s not funny is that a regional institution of wide renown is no more, with the cascading loss of income to hundreds of people and business owners, who relied on WBT as a major client and opportunity for employment.
“We will speak about you until the day we die,” wrote Chris Jamison Matthews on the theater's Facebook page. As news spread of what was unthinkable for those whose lives were entwined with the theater’s life, social media served as a necessary grieving ground for in memoriam salutes such as hers.
Matthews continued, “Thank you, Bill and Bob, Lisa, Pia, Steve, and everyone who ever worked there, for giving us a marvelous place to watch theatre and perform theatre and just be together to love theater. Thank you for everything.”
NOTE: Westchester Broadway Theatre ticket holders for shows after March 12, 2020, can exchange them for vouchers good for events through Dec. 31, 2022 at White Plains Performing Arts Center. Full details: wppac.com/wbt. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bruce Apar is a writer, actor, consultant, and community volunteer. He can be reached at email@example.com; 914-275-6887.