Hopewell’s picturesque Off-Broadstreet Theater, which has roots dating back to the early 20th century, is being renovated, expanded, and updated into a 21st century venue.
After serving for the last 30 years as the exclusive venue for the dessert-theater productions of Bob and Julie Thick, the theater was acquired from the Thicks by Jon McConaughy of Double Brook Farm, Brick Farm Market, and the soon-to-open Brick Farm Tavern. Joining him are other Hopewell-based partners: Mitchel Skolnick, who owns Bluestone Farms, a race horse breeding and training site, and Sky and Liza Morehouse. Sky runs Morehouse Engineering. Liza chaired McCarter Theater’s gala committee this year and serves on the board of D&R Greenway Land Trust and Morven Museum.
The new owners plan to expand programming and host a variety of performances in the venue that will now be called the Hopewell Playhouse. And, yes, the Thicks’ dessert theater will also be returning. The tentative opening of the Hopewell Playhouse is January of 2016, with a performance series produced by the Thicks. The current lease between the partners and the Thicks calls for two series of performances, after which it will be eligible for renewal.
“The ultimate goal is we’re trying to put as much technology as we can to make it a good performing venue,” Morehouse says. “We’re trying to concentrate on making the space technologically sophisticated so it can house any performance.”
An engineer specializing in process control projects, Morehouse enthusiastically describes the technology systems being added to the building, drawing on consultations with McCarter Theater stage supervisor Stephen Howe and sound engineer Bill Kirby. There are plans for a new lighting and audio systems, connected to a central digital network, as well as video monitors. The building’s electrical and HVAC systems will be replaced, and fire sprinklers will be installed.
“The goal is to make it a more comfortable environment that can support multi-genre performances from music, to movie, to theatrical, to literary readings,” Morehouse says. “We want to bring enough technology so we can light it properly, and have appropriate acoustics for all of those performances.”
Extensive interior renovations are planned as well. Two sections of fixed seating will be installed in the main theater area, though a center section between the seating and the lower section toward the stage will remain flexible and feature tables and seats. The ceiling above the main seating area will be removed, replaced by a second floor mezzanine balcony. Removing the ceiling will also expose the audience to the wooden trusses bolstering the roof, and a new roof with exterior insulation will be installed.
In the lobby, there will be two bars for catered events, and handicap accessible bathrooms will be added to the ground floor. On the second floor, there will be a private cigar/special event room with its own HVAC and air control system. The room was previously a movie projection room, coated in concrete to fireproof the space from flammable film cellulose.
The Hopewell-based partners have turned to other Hopewell-based businesses to help on the project, including ThinkForm Architects, Baxter Construction, and A Step in Stone.
The current structure was erected in 1940 as a movie theater called the Colonial Playhouse. It replaced Columbia Hall, a truly mixed use two-story community center. In addition to hosting film screenings, Columbia Hall housed a firehouse. Borough Council meetings and elections were convened on the first floor, and there was a dance hall on the second floor. A motorcycle repair shop also was sandwiched onto the site.
In the 1960s, George Gallup Jr., whose father founded the Gallup polling company, purchased the property and converted the movie theater into a public polling site called the “Mirror of America.” Audiences were invited to watch movies, and they would be polled on the advertisements. Gallup, who was also interested in theater, occasionally hosted Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in the building.
But since the Gallup company’s main building was in Princeton, the Hopewell theater became extraneous in the 1980s. Gallup and Bob Thick both attended Trinity Church in Princeton, and the two became friends. When Gallup overheard Thick talking about the search for a theater space, he reached into his pocket and gave Thick the key to 5 South Greenwood Avenue, encouraging him look and see whether the building suited his needs. In 1984 the Thicks leased the building from Gallup and moved to Hopewell, and purchased the building several years later.
All told, the transition from Off-Broadstreet Theater to Hopewell Playhouse hasn’t been cheap. Initial renovation estimates were $1.2 million, but the actual figure is approaching $2 million, according to Morehouse. Nonetheless, he estimates a whole new building would have cost at least twice as much, and given the building’s historic significance the partners never considered a complete tear down.
Once the improvements are complete, the partners intend to host more performances. “Our goal is to have a performance every night if we could,” Morehouse says. “The intention is to have a manager run the place. None of the three partners are in the [theater] business.”
The final theater configuration will be similar to another performance venue, the Berlind Auditorium at McCarter. However, with seating currently at around 260 and an open format that may accommodate 100 more people, the goal is not to compete against McCarter, but to develop local artists.
“It’s the same old stuff,” Morehouse says. “The idea is it will be a comfortable and enjoyable place so you have enough momentum to get out of your house and bring people out into the community.”