When Off-Broadstreet Theater in Hopewell closed at the end of 2016, you might think that owners Bob and Julie Thick would have been lost.
After all, they had been the multi-faceted, multi-tasking angels of Off-Broadstreet since 1984, doing everything from overseeing hundreds of performances to serving delectable desserts.
However, a recent conversation with Bob Thick revealed that it was their choice to walk away.
“We sold it to the Hopewell Theater,” he says. “Jon (co-owner Jon McConaughy) approached us. We discussed things and came to an agreement. We understood that we weren’t going to be there forever, and when the final lease was up we said ‘no thank you.’”
Unlike certain retirees who take to the old rocking chair after leaving a long-time position, the Thicks have continued to be quite busy during this new era.
Julie is an adjunct professor of dance (tap) at Rider University; she also teaches at Center Stage Dance Studio in East Brunswick.
Bob has continued to do some directing and even a little acting.
“Last year I directed ‘All My Sons’ at Langhorne Players,” he says. “I like Arthur Miller, so that was a good fit for me.”
His next directorial project is the production of Frederick Knott’s suspenseful “Wait Until Dark” (adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher), running at Music Mountain Theater in Lambertville, Friday, July 19, through Sunday, July 28.
Knott’s thriller is the story of Susy Hendrix, a recently blinded homemaker living in Greenwich Village who becomes the target of Harry Roat. This brutal, sophisticated criminal coerces two small-time thugs into helping him search for drugs hidden inside of a doll that Susy’s husband had unwillingly transported from Canada. A battle of wits ensues as Susy and the young girl upstairs launch a counterplot against the thieves.
Thick — with Ginny Brennan, owner and executive director at Music Mountain Theater, as producing director — is directing at the venue for the first time, though it is the third time he has done “Wait Until Dark.”
“We did it at Off-Broadstreet in the mid-1980s,” says Thick, recalling an encounter with the late playwright and former Princeton resident Knott. “We announced the play, started rehearsals, and one day I picked up the phone and the person on the other end said, ‘Hello this is Freddie Knott. I see you’re doing my play, can I come to the rehearsals?’”
Knott “came to nearly every rehearsal and performance, and brought so many stories about ‘Wait Until Dark’ and ‘Dial M For Murder,’” Thick says. “He was a delightful gent and became part of the production.”
“Music Mountain has been doing musicals like ‘Spamalot,’ ‘The Full Monty,’ and most recently ‘South Pacific,’” Thick says. “They’re venturing into non-musicals and this is one of the first they’re doing.”
A 501(c)3 non-profit organization that opened in 2018, Music Mountain Theater (MMT) is a 250-seat performing arts venue located adjacent to the site of the historic Lambertville Music Circus and provides live theatrical productions year-round. The venue is also available to other performing groups and is home to the Theater School at Music Mountain Theater.
“It’s a lovely theater, a new facility with a nice green room and great shop facilities,” Thick says. “Plus Music Mountain has a full teaching wing and a full (department focused on) children’s shows. They’ve really done it right.”
Indeed, Music Mountain asserts that “a crucial part of the programming is a children’s theater series designed to introduce young audiences to the world of live theater.”
As far as talent at MMT, Thick says he has seen a lot of actors from Hunterdon County, Princeton, and Hopewell, but also from areas farther flung.
“Draw a 50-mile radius around Hopewell, and we’re seeing talent from all those areas,” he says. “There’s one youngster in ‘Wait Until Dark,’ and when we had auditions 300 people showed up for the part.”
Thick has envisioned “Wait Until Dark” to be suspenseful, with a certain amount of terror based on tension. He notes that the production will be set in the 1940s, so there are no cellphones.
“All we can use is a land line; if not the script doesn’t work very well,” he says. “There are a lot of neat plot twists and an overall darkness to the play. For example, the husband is a photographer, so he’s working in a darkroom. There are broken light bulbs, lots of darkness.”
“Susy is newly blind, and the little girl, Gloria, is a gangly 12-year old. She’s not secure,” Thick adds. “But together they come to a working relationship that enables both of them to function better, and they work through this crisis.”
Usually found behind the scenes, Thick has been on stage recently, and in late spring he played the rigidly fundamentalist Matthew Harrison Brady in “Inherit the Wind” at the Kelsey Theater.
Thick was born and raised in Marshall, Michigan, where his family had owned movie theaters since his grandfather launched the business in the 1930s.
“We made it a real family business, with my father and uncle running things, then one of my cousins took it over; in fact, it lasted until about 15 years ago,” Thick says.
Originally trained as a classical vocalist, he was involved in singing and theatrical productions since age eight, performing in venues across the United States and in Europe.
Thick studied music at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo and graduated with a bachelor of music degree in 1972.
How he came from the Midwest to central New Jersey is a convoluted story, but Thick says he was personally invited to the area by the late Karl Light (K.M. Light Real Estate), who was also a television and theatrical actor.
The two men connected through a Midwestern production of “My Fair Lady.”
“Karl came from Princeton to do Henry Higgins and we became friends,” Thick says. “We had wanted to come East, and Karl said, ‘Come to Princeton, I happen to be a realtor and I’ll help you find a place.’ We became good friends and did quite a few shows together.”
Thick seems to have remarkably good luck connecting with just the right people who have helped him navigate life in central New Jersey. The late pollster George Gallup Jr. is another special association Thick made, a relationship that opened the doors to operating Off-Broadstreet for 32 years.
The place on South Greenwood Avenue was built in 1940 and called the Colonial Playhouse, and it was used as an entertainment venue until the 1960s when Gallup purchased the building.
In its new incarnation as Mirror of America, audiences would be shown movies and commercials, and pollsters would gauge their reactions. The Thicks bought the theater in 1984, renaming it Off-Broadstreet Theater (sometimes also known as Off-Broadstreet Dessert Theater.)
“They’d often have musicales there at night, especially Gilbert and Sullivan,” Thick says. “By the way, Gallup loved Gilbert and Sullivan, and sometimes would perform himself. We met when I was tenor soloist at Trinity Church in Princeton.”
“One day I mentioned to someone that I would like to have a theater somewhere, and literally a hand descended upon my shoulder,” he recalls. “I turned around and it was George Gallup, who said, ‘I have a building for you.’ It took a few years to get off the ground, but that’s how things got started for us at Off-Broadstreet.”
In addition to being the artistic director at Off-Broadstreet, for a while Thick was an educator at SciCore Academy, the private day school in Hightstown. (He left there around the same time Off-Broadstreet closed.)
“They were looking for someone to teach Shakespeare, so I did that, but also taught music, English, elocution, and a lot of public speaking,” Thick says. “The school’s focus is on science, but they wanted the kids to be well-rounded, so they offered English, theater, etc. It turned into a fine time, they let me create my own curriculum, and the kids were great. It was very liberating.”
After the production of “Wait Until Dark” wraps up, the Thicks will kick back for a while. Julie will resume teaching in the fall, and Bob will continue singing with the Yardley, Pennsylvania-based chamber chorus Cantus Novus. The couple has an adult son, Robert.
As far as Off-Broadstreet is concerned, the Thicks mentioned in their farewell statement that their production company might continue to offer small, traveling presentations.
“When we retired, we saved the name so we could come back and do some productions, which we might,” Thick says. “It’s possible, if we find the right venue.”
“We were content with what we’d achieved,” he says. “We’d never taken any public funding. We really ran the business on our own terms and we left on our own terms, but one of those terms was that the venue had to continue as a gathering spot for the borough. Fortunately (the new owners) agreed.”
Wait Until Dark, Music Mountain Theater, 1483 Route 179, Lambertville. Fridays July 19 and 26, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, July 20 and 27, 3 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, July 21 and 28, 3 p.m. Reception follows opening night performance. $25. 609-397-3337 or www.musicmountaintheatre.org