Corrections or additions?

This article by Sally Friedman was prepared for the June 30, 2004

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

A 20 Year Run – On Stage and Off

They met, fittingly enough, within the context of theater. She was

choreographing a benefit production of “The Music Man” at a synagogue

in Somerset in the early 1980s, and he was portraying Harold Hill, the

play’s leading man.

“It was a friendship first, then a romance,” says Julie Thick, who

would become Mrs. Bob Thick in 1984. That same year, two determined

people decided that they would start a theater company, and treat it

as their very own, very special small business. Against the odds of

making a go of it in a tough niche at all, let alone of surviving long

term, the Off-Broadstreet Theater in Hopewell celebrates a 20th

anniversary this month — just two months after its creators celebrated

their 20th wedding anniversary.

“This is something we both love, and I can’t imagine doing it with

anyone but Julie,” says Bob, whose theatrical roots reach back to his

Michigan childhood. Always an avid performer, Thick sang and played

the trumpet as a kid. When he had to choose between them in college

for a sharper focus, the trumpet lost out to voice, specifically

opera, at Olivet College (Class of 1971) and Michigan State

University.

For several years, Bob’s singing career took him through Europe and

the United States, and while he was performing in a dinner theater

production of “Man of La Mancha,” the notion took hold that there was

something special about putting food and theater together. Thus was

the seed for Off-Broadstreet Theater planted.

Julie’s path to theater was a bit more circuitous. A native of

Piscataway, she had studied dance and gymnastics, and had, in fact,

become a collegiate gymnastics champion at Douglass College (Class of

1981). But her major was economics, definitely a more secure calling.

Still, dance continued to be a passion, and, just out of college,

Julie Thick worked with the likes of Mercedes Ellington and Gregory

Hines in a New York tap company. She continued choreographing for

theatrical productions, then turned to her other life as an economist,

working for Federal Express.

“It was when I met Bob that I decided to do theater full time,” says

Julie, who has never looked back. Today, the two are doing what others

who love theater only dream of: they are operating a successful

theater, with all the attendant challenges and rewards in a New Jersey

town that has welcomed them as part of the cultural landscape.

“I wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before, namely to

begin a theatrical company and make a living from it,” says Bob. “And

the good news is that it’s turned our fine.”

He worked during the first year after they started the theater, and

she taught dance for three days a week, but otherwise neither of them

has worked outside of Off-Broadstreet since its inception. The first

year went by smoothly enough, powered by a new vision — and savings.

“The second year was really hard,” says Julie. “The second year and

the third year, too.” Initial savings were largely gone, the theater

was not yet a known entity, and the pair knew that they had to get

steady ticket sales going, or fold.

Off-Broadstreet, and its newly-wed owners, received some help during

that period from Hopewell merchants. “Some businesses in town were

lenient,” says Julie. “They let us pay as we went. We had a tab going

at J.B. Hill and Sons lumber yard.”

Some crucial help also came in the form of a supportive landlord. The

site for the Off-Broadstreet theater presented itself when Bob learned

that the Gallup Organization owned what had been the town’s only movie

theater, just off Broad Street on South Greenwood Avenue. Once, the

building had been a headquarters for the filling out of Gallup’s

famous polling questionnaires.

Bob visited the building, liked what he saw, and launched a dinner

theater in what was initially rented space. “The Gallups were very

generous to us,” says Julie. “We told them from the start that we

wanted to buy, but they didn’t push us. They waited until we were

ready.” That day came after the theater had been putting on plays for

seven years. With their legs under them, the Thicks were able to take

over ownership from George and Kinny Gallup. The mortgage was about

the same as the rent that they had been paying, but the difference,

says Julie, was that as owners they felt that it was prudent to go

ahead with improvements such as a new, more efficient air conditioner

and heating system.

“But the kitchen wasn’t really large enough (for preparing dinner), so

we decided to go for a dessert format,” says Julie, who was a bit more

reluctant, at first, than her husband was about launching the venture.

“I guess she had to be browbeaten,” he quips 20 years later.

From the start, the concept was to take advantage of the region’s rich

pool of talent, and to present a full calendar of diverse, relevant

plays in an eclectic mix. The theater was set up in a cabaret style,

with tables and chairs, and from the start, a buffet-style dessert

came before the performance, with servers bringing beverages to

patrons.

“We painted everything pink, because that’s my favorite color,” says

Julie, noting that even the theater’s letterhead stationery is a warm,

rosy pink. “We went with candlelit tables to create an intimate, warm

feel,” she says, “and we kept as many of the deco aspects of the old

movie theater as we could.” The very first play presented at

Off-Broadstreet Theater was the perfectly titled “Starting Here,

Starting Now.”

From their own start as artistic entrepreneurs, the Thicks wanted

their theater to be a training ground for regional talent, and it has

been. One actor, Jennifer East, began at Off-Broadstreet at the tender

age of 11, when the theater, too, was young, came back to perform in

“Patent Leather Shoes” when she was in college, and then went on to

work in theater in New York, although she still returns to the place

where it all began.

Off-Broadstreet is not an Equity house, but its actors are paid a

small sum for each turn, and it prides itself on the quality of its

performances. A number of alumni have indeed earned Actors Equity

cards, and countless favorable reviews have supported the Thicks’

mission of bringing quality theater to Hopewell.

“About 30 to 40 percent of the people on stage in every play are new

to us, and that’s wonderful, says Julie. “We have some core actors,

but we’re always looking for new talent, too.”

Ambitious, large-scale plays like “Chicago” have been staged by the

Thicks, with Bob generally doing the directing and Julie handling the

business aspects and choreography. More obscure plays, period plays,

and comedies have also delighted audiences. The theater’s range goes

from Shakespeare to Neil Simon, with every imaginable work in between.

“The theater operates year-round, with two weeks off between each

five-week series,” says Bob. One show rehearses while its predecessor

is still running. The Thicks themselves are rarely at rest.

“Our work day begins at 10 a.m.,” says Bob. “We’re in the office from

10 a.m. until 4 p.m.” Then it’s home for supper, until 5:30 p.m.,

before heading back for rehearsals or a show. “We get home at 11 p.m.

or so,” he says. As for a day off, “We try to take Mondays,” he says,

“but it often doesn’t work.” When the couple does have a day off, they

like to take off for the Poconos on Sunday night, after the show, and

return on Monday evening.

The pair have vacationed in London, but find that a trip to that city,

with its famous theaters, quickly becomes a working vacation. “We’ve

discovered cruises,” says Bob of another vacation option. “Nobody can

get to us.”

Support for Broadstreet, which fills not only the Thicks days and

nights, but also the account from which they pay their bills, comes

almost entirely from ticket sales. Subscriptions, the pair say, are

the lifeblood of Off-Broadstreet, offering patrons both reduced rates

and first choice options in seating. When the theater began in 1984,

there were 34 brave souls willing to subscribe. Today, the couple cuts

off subscriptions at 1,100 (priced at $227 for a table of two for a

series of five plays on a Saturday night; many other options are

available). At the cut-off point, there are still seats left, says

Julie, but taking on too many subscribers would mean that requests for

specific seats could not easily be honored.

A relatively small amount of supplemental income comes from patrons,

friends of the theater who are listed on the playbills. This money,

says Bob, is earmarked for capital improvements, and is currently

accruing toward the cost of installing a new bathroom.

And how does this husband-and-wife team choose what plays their

audiences will see?

“We read literally hundreds of scripts each year,” says Bob, noting

that the life partners/theatrical partners seek a balance and the

right combination of offerings. Julie does first readings, ranks plays

on a scale of one to five, and then hands everything over a three to

Bob. The final challenge is to work each selected play into an

appropriate series.

Julie also holds the reins to a most important aspect of

Off-Broadstreet, and it’s her favorite responsibility — she chooses

the desserts that patrons enjoy. “We vary what we serve, from fruit

desserts to chocolate confections, and we deal with several local

purveyors,” she says. Among them are Brothers Moon of Hopewell and

Main Street in Kingston.

The Thicks have heard the naysayers proclaim that mixing marriage and

work can be disastrous. They’ve heard the prophets of doom suggest

that neither the marriage nor the business might survive intact. And

they know otherwise.

“This is a very small operation,” says Julie. “Our only employee is a

27-hour-a-week house manager. Our waiters volunteer their services. We

do whatever needs to be done because this is our baby, and we care a

great deal about it, and about one another.”

As with all babies, the theater causes anxiety. “It’s a scary

business,” says Julie. Each play absolutely has to be a hit with the

audience. But wait, aren’t most ticket holders subscribers? Aren’t

they locked in? Well, yes, but only to a limited degree, only for five

plays at a time. One poorly-received play in a series might possibly

be forgiven, says Julie, but then the pressure would be nearly

unbearable. “You’re only allowed one mistake,” she says. “After that

they (the subscribers) won’t be back.”

The theater is a business, but unlike the manufacture of widgets, a

process that could reasonably be expected to become a no-brainer after

a few seasons, it is a business that is brand new every time it rolls

out a new product. There can be no Derek Jeter-like slump. While the

Yankee slugger was forgiven after several miserable, no-hit weeks, the

Thicks know that a string of poorly-received plays could easily put

them under — 20 successful years, or no.

Other important presences in their lives are Bob’s grown son, a

builder in Michigan who drops in on Off-Broadstreet about twice a

year, and their two cats, Fosse, named for the choreographer, and

Willie, named for the bard. A previous cat, Baryshnikov, performed in

a few shows, but Fosse and Willie are content to lounge about at home.

And how did the couple celebrate their 20th anniversary? “We spent the

night at the theater, of course,” say Bob and Julie, almost in unison.

“It seemed the logical spot to be,” adds Bob. “Much of our lives are

right here.”

— Sally Friedman

Off Broadstreet Theater’s next production is “A Class Act,” a work

about Ed Kleban, the lyricist of “A Chorus Line.” The play runs from

Friday, July 2, to Saturday, August 14, on Fridays at 7 p.m.,

Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 1:30 p.m. Tickets: $22.50 on

Friday and Sunday; $24 on Saturday. No credit cards are accepted. Call

609-466-2766.


Next Story


Corrections or additions?


This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

Facebook Comments