By Melissa Arnold
It’s been an agonizingly long year for lovers of the arts as the COVID-19 pandemic canceled concerts, closed galleries and darkened theaters everywhere.
At the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport, owners Richard T. Dolce and Kevin O’Neill have shouldered the burden of keeping the venue afloat and adapting to ever-changing safety guidelines.
“A part of running a business like this is being aware of risks where people wouldn’t be able to come to the theater,” said O’Neill, the theater’s managing director. “I’d been watching COVID spread since January of 2020, and I knew it was going to get ugly here. The last thing we wanted was to find out after the fact that one of our Saturday matinees ended up being one of those super-spreader events.”
Artistic director Richard T. Dolce recalled his last meeting with actors and the uncertainty they struggled with at the time.
“We were in rehearsals for [a Main Stage production] in the city, and I went in on the 13th of March. The day before, Governor Cuomo had shut down Broadway. The show was ready to go on, and I said goodbye to the cast, saying we would take it day by day and see how it went. Not long after, we realized we weren’t going to reopen. It was difficult, because we had no idea what was going on.”
Of course, weeks turned into months of waiting. Fortunately, the theater was able to receive some financial support through federal small business relief loans. The community was eager to help as well.
“Everyone has been so incredibly kind and understanding, and we didn’t have a lot of refund requests — people wanted to continue to support us,” O’Neill said. “We’ve worked hard to build strong relationships with our patrons over the last 14 years, and it really felt like we were in it together.”
With the building unoccupied for the foreseeable future, it was also a good time to do some sprucing up. The Engeman now has a high-tech ventilation system that ionizes and purifies the air, a new stage deck, fresh carpets, new bar equipment and renovated bathrooms.
While the Main Stage productions have been postponed until September, the theater is ready to open again at full capacity for fully-vaccinated patrons on July 9 with a Summer Concert Series featuring a variety of musicians and other performing artists for one or two performances apiece. The series has a little something for everyone, from show tunes to crooners, folk rock and even comedy.
A few highlights include cabaret/jazz artist Carole J. Bufford honoring revolutionary women artists including Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, Carole King and Cher in “You Don’t Own Me: Fearless Females of the ‘60s and ‘70s” on July 10; Comedy Nights on July 15, July 24 and Aug. 26; “Shades of Bublé” will make you swoon with a three-man tribute to classic swing icon Michael Bublé on July 25; “Jersey Boys and Girls” will celebrate the best of the Garden State: Frank Sinatra, the Four Seasons, Bruce Springsteen, Whitney Houston and more on Aug. 5 and 6; “Adam Pascal: So Far” welcomes the Broadway veteran for songs and stories from more than 25 years onstage on Aug. 14; and “Rock ‘n’ Radio” will feature more than 80 years of chart-topping pop hits on Aug. 19.
The theater’s reopening is also a time for families with young children to rejoice, as children’s theater returns on July 24 to Aug. 29 with Disney’s The Little Mermaid Jr. and teenagers can enjoy Heathers the Musical on July 31 and Aug. 1. Two sessions of Musical Theater Camp are also returning (July 5 to 30 and Aug. 2 to 27).
From the box office to the stage, the Engeman staff is beyond ready for the busy weekend crowds and the energetic crackle of a great performance.
“It feels wonderful to be back at the theater! Although as management we were working from home during the height of the pandemic and we all saw each other on our weekly Zoom meeting, there is something so special about being back together again. It feels like a kind of rebirth,” said box office manager Phyllis Molloy.
“The phone hasn’t stopped ringing since we opened the doors. Our patrons are excited that we are back and they are really looking forward to the [summer lineup]. They have wanted to chat and catch up,” said Molloy. “For me, it’s nice to be able to book them into upcoming performances and say ‘See you soon.’ I’m looking forward to the opening evening and seeing all their familiar faces back in the theater.”
The John W. Engeman Theater is located at 250 Main Street, Northport. For the full summer schedule and to purchase tickets, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com. Please note: As of press time, proof of COVID-19 vaccination will be required for all patrons 16 and older to enter.