Theater brings a decade of entertainment to Long Island

Theater brings a decade of entertainment to Long Island

The John W Engeman Theater has been entertaining audiences for 10 years. Photo from Jessie Eppelheimer

The streets of Northport have come alive with music and laughter in the past 10 years — and that’s all thanks to the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport.

The Main Street theater first opened its doors in 2007 and has been providing Long Island residents with quality entertainment at an affordable price ever since.

When it comes to why theater lovers should chose the Engeman theater over a Broadway show, Director of Operations Michael DeCristofaro said the Northport venue offers an experience you could never get on Broadway.

“We don’t have the space Broadway has,” DeCristofaro said in an interview. “We don’t have wing space or fly space, so we really are able to slow these shows down and find the heart and the essence of the show. People come and see shows like they’ve never seen them before. We’re really able to get into the story of the characters.”

The theater during construction. Photo from Jessie Eppelheimer
The theater during construction. Photo from Jessie Eppelheimer

DeCristofaro said some shows like “West Side Story,” “The Producers” and the upcoming show “Memphis” stand out as really being able to accomplish just that.

“We were told by numerous patrons, ‘better than Broadway,’” he said. “People felt that seeing it in an intimate venue like this without all the distracting flash of pizzazz and set pieces moving in and out really helped them focus on the characters and have fun and get involved.”

Another aspect of the theater that may contribute to the more intimate setting is the distance from the seats to the stage. According to Jessie Eppelheimer, the operations administrator, the back seats are only about 75 feet from the stage, “which you could never get at a Broadway show,” she said in an interview.

But there is one crucial way in which DeCristofaro thinks his theater stands shoulder to shoulder with Broadway, and that’s in the talent.

“We have a really good amount of Broadway talent,” he said. DeCristofaro listed Eddie Mekka, a Tony-nominated actor, and Michael McGrath, a multiple Tony award-winning actor, as two actors who had lead roles in previous shows at Engeman.

“If our alumni are not on Broadway, they’re in a national touring production,” DeCristofaro said. “We get some really incredible top-notch talent and it’s great for the local community to try and see that top notch talent here in Northport for half of the price they’d paid on Broadway.”

But it wasn’t always that way.

What is now a year-round full equity theater, producing multiple shows a year, was once just a small village movie house.

Originally built in 1912, silent movies used to play at the theater for 50 cents a person. In 1913, the Northport trolley helped make night shows a possibility, and by 1930, talking films came to the village. But two years later, the theater was struck with a fire that completely destroyed the establishment, forcing it to close its doors.

The new theater opened in November 1932 with 754 seats and was positioned directly next door to where the original one had stood. “Sherlock Holmes,” starring Clive Brook and Ernest Torrence, was first to be shown.

According to Eppelheimer, many of the original aspects of the 1930 theater still stand today, including the entire lobby, walls in the theater room and some of the lighting.

“People were attached to [the original design] and they tried to keep it as familiar as possible when they reopened,” she said.

In 2007, Huntington residents Kevin O’Neill and his wife Patti, owners of the theater, welcomed audiences to see real-time plays for the first time, and residents from all over Long Island have been filling in the seats ever since. The theater was named in tribute to O’Neill’s brother, Chief Warrant Officer Four John William Engeman, who was killed in Iraq in May 2006.

The theater now holds up to 400 audience members, has a full bar and lounge and shows multiple musicals and plays annually. Eppelheimer said there are about 5,000 season ticket holders and the theater has an 80 percent retention rate.

For the 10th anniversary season, the Engeman will feature a lineup exclusively of musicals, including a repeat of the inaugural show “Jekyll and Hyde.”

“We’re paying tribute to the first season,” Eppelheimer said. Other shows in the coming year include “Mamma Mia,” “Oklahoma” and “Mary Poppins.”

Over the years the theater has expanded, offering children shows, theater-school programs and hosting charity events.

“It was always intended to not just be a theater,” DeCristafaro said. “We wanted to be able to do more for the community and get children and parents involved.”

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