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 enjoy 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.
After eight agonizing months of waiting in the wings for a return to the stage, the curtain now 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 theatre in July 1974. The first (and only) performance of All Shook Up, the theatre’s 217th production, would prove to be its finale.
It turns out, though, that All Shook Up’s opening night was not the last performance on the WBT stage. The gods of comedy and tragedy demanded there be one more performance, putting what actors call “a button” on the proud and eventful history of the theatre. .
At an informal gathering of the WBT faithful on Nov. 21, quickly arranged for auld lang syne by the theatre’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 breakout Streisand hit, “People.”
In a post on Facebook, Bedford resident Matthews — who at one time was in the Broadway companies of Fiddler on the Roof and Annie — reflected the passion and appreciation of the close-knit WBT community of local theater lovers, 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 had operated as An Evening Dinner Theatre, opening July 1974.
The business formula for the new Elmsford theatre, 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 laid-back convenience of a short drive from home.
It took some doing for the theater entrepreneurs to get their plans past negative nabobs, and approved by the Town of Greenburgh, so construction could commence in the Village of Elmsford’s Cross-Westchester Executive Park, off Route 100C.
According to an unpublished book on the theatre’s history by Gary Chattman, some residents claimed the all-American theater concept was a Trojan Horse for what instead would be undesirable adult entertainment, namely a strip club.
During the hearing process, among those who lent their fabled names to the project 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 mainstays, George and Ira Gershwin, tried to acquire the theatre in recent months. Todd Gershwin, though, was rebuffed by property owner Robert Martin Company, which instead flipped the cavernous building to a new tenant, who is gutting it for use as a storage facility. They could pay homage to WBT’s musical theatre legacy by nicknaming it The Best Little Warehouse in Westchester.)
In the 1970s, Broadway prices for premium seats were well under $20, about one-tenth of the 2020 cost for comparable tickets. A midtown dinner and parking multiplied the outlay.
By contrast, in the first years of the Elmsford dinner theatre, 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.
From that point on, the prolific producers — including Von Ann Stutler, wife of Bill — had an enviable 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.
Even if it weren’t for Covid running roughshod over industries and business owners who are vulnerable to social distancing restrictions, 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.”
With 35 years under his belt at WBT, Steve Calleran — who was the evening manager and ever-present MC appearing on stage pre-curtain and at intermission — has seen it all.
He notes that “some people say dinner theatre has passed its heyday. In the ‘70s, there were more professional dinner theaters in Florida than in the whole country.”
Calleran recalls well WBT’s heyday, when shows often featured actors who had just appeared in the same musical’s Broadway production.
Fond memories, though, can’t mitigate today’s harsh reality that a regional institution of wide renown has folded its tent, setting off a cascading loss of income to hundreds of people who relied on WBT as a major meal ticket.
Chris Matthews ended her Facebook elegy to WBT on a high note: “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 theatre. 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 Editor of River Journal North