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