Bellport's Gateway Playhouse Keeps Rolling Along

Summer theater was a prolific form of entertainment on Long Island in the 1950's and 60's.Converted barns in Northport, Greenport and Bellport became theaters, while star packages performed under a circus-like canvas tent at the Westbury Music Fair.Meanwhile, opulent mountings of Broadway musicals were presented at the Jones Beach MarineTheater on ZachsBay .

Nowadays the barns in Northport and Greenport are gone and both JonesBeach and Westbury have become concert venues.Only the Gateway Playhouse in Bellport remains and is so popular that local residents know better than to drive along
South Country Road
at certain hours lest they become entangled in traffic either entering or exiting the theater.


The Gateway Playhouse is located on the site of the former Mott Estate on the eastern-most tip of Bellport , New York .Rumors are rife about the ghost of Lucretia Mott still haunting one of the buildings on the premises but she seems to be benign and hasn't caused any significant problems in the past few decades.

Established in 1941, the Gateway began in the tradition of those old Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney films where someone suggests, "Let's put on a show!" and a terrific production is presented by a group of talented teens.In the case of the Gateway, the kids were Sally, Ruth and David Pomeran who began by presenting skits and puppet shows to entertain guestsin the estate's dining room.Eventually they put on Shakespearean productions in a barn that still stands on the Gateway's well-tended grounds.Sally, Ruth and David were the children of Libby and Harry Pomeran and Harry became the producer of the Gateway's earliest seasons; remaining in that position until 1973.

The first performances were given under the most primitive conditions in a barn that still smelled like a barn but the Gateway became a popular attraction with drew audiences from Bellport Village and the surrounding communities.Eventually Shakespeare was abandoned and contemporary fare of the day like A View From the Bridge,A Streetcar Named Desire and Summer and Smoke were given marvelous productions on the tiny stage.Eventually scaled-down versions of Flower Drum Song and Redhead found their ways into Gateway's schedule.

In 1962 the Gateway opened a new 500 seat theater.It stands adjacent to the barn and shares the same lobby.The new theater is air conditioned and retains the barn-like facade of the original ediface.This is the Main Stage that is still in use today.

Along with the new theater came a shifting in the format took place.Musicals such as Gypsy and Bye Bye Birdie were given two week runs while serious plays like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Tchin-Tchin played single week engagements throughout the seasons.

"The last non-musical we presented here was Neil Simon's Laughter on the 34th Floor"commented the Gateway's current producerm Paul Allan.Allan is the latest member of the Pomeran clan to hold the reins of the family business.The son of Ruth (Pomeran) and Stanley Allen, Paul is a 1978graduate of BellportHigh School, where he designed the lighting and special effects for such drama club productions as Peter Pan, My Sister Eileen and The Wizard of Oz.He comes from a theatrical family and is no stranger to the hard work and discipline required for the presentation of live plays and musicals.

Chatting outdoors in a tent that theater-goers enjoy during intermissions at Gateway productions, Allen spoke candidly about the family business and the rigors of producing quality productions for today's audiences.He's been in this position since 1980 when he and his sister Robin produced a season of musicals consisting of Godspell, Dracula, Cabaretand Grease."It was interesting.It went well.We were young.I was just 20 and Robin and I hada lot of challenges running the business at such a young age. However, the season was successful and we were both proud of that."

The following year, Robin left New York to pursue a career casting movies in Hollywood (she would eventually return in 1995) and Allan's cousin Laurel joined him to co-produce a season.In 1980 and'81, John Hodge was brought to the Gateway as a stage manager.He became permanent part of the theater's history in 1982 when he became Paul Allen's co-producer.In 1993,the Gateway acquired the Candlewood Playhouse in Connecticut , which would share productions with the Bellport facility. "John was based uop there and I was down here," recalls Allen."We thought we were going to produce for each theater together but that wasn't logistically possible.We weren't on each other's turf very often but talked a lot on the phone and traded shows back and forth.Unfortunately the Gateway's Candlewood Playhouse just didn't have the client base that we thought it had and even though we were saving a lot of money on production costs, we didn't make a profit up there.However, we were having very successful seasons here on Long Island and the severe losses in Connecticut were offset by the profits in Bellport."The decision of to close Candlewood came in 1998.

Renovations to turn the old Patchogue Movie Theater (which once served as the local vaudeville palace) into the Patchogue Theatre for the PerformingArtsCenter began the following year."We had one good season behind us," Allen remarks, "and we took on the new project.It was rough because ultimately we ran both the Performing Arts Center and the Gateway at a loss.We He had just opened up 1,200 seats at the Performing Arts Center and introduced our patrons to it.We pretty much split them right down the middle.We did only 60% of our regular business here in Bellport that summer and almost broke even in Patchogue but did well enough in Patchogue to pretty much split break even.Still, business in Bellport was so low it netted a tremendous loss."

The following season found the rug being pulled out from the Gateway due to a complicated lawsuit.As Allen and his theater had invested heavily in the equipment resources to get the Patchogue venue going, an agreement was reached in 2001 where eight weeks of each Gateway season is allocated to the Patchogue Performing Arts Center.This allows for productions which require more space to be presented on a stage that can accommodate them.Such is the case of the theater's next production:Disney's Beauty And the Beast

Walking with Allen through the Gateway's Bellport facility found it to be a veritable beehive of creative activity as Beauty and the Beast was being prepared for its July 9th opening.In one studio, choreographer Michelle Weber was putting together the show's stein dance with a group of very adept dancers. On the lawn, director Dom Ruggiero was consulting with his associates and clipboards were being feverishly scrawled upon. In another building Susan Bigelow was fitting herself into the costume of a teapot that she'll wear as Mrs. Potts.In an opposite corner of that room, the production's Lumier, David Edwards,was trying on his elaborate outfit and experimenting with how his hands will blazewhen the internal wiring is manipulated.In the nearby scene shop, carpenters, welders and painters were putting the finishing touches on Kelly Tighe's stunning sets.A single look at his renderings makes one realize how breathtaking this productiion will be.From the storybook streets to the Beast's lair, Tighe's designs and use of color are gorgeous.

The castle is truly impressive as it is designed to revolve and track up and down the stage."It's got a drive mechanism in it," says Allen "and that's pretty spectacular.It contains 2 powerful motors, gearboxes and tons of computerized electronics.We've nick named it R2 because when it was all assembled it actually looks like R2D2, although it lives concealed inside the castle. Star Wars fans would have to go backstage to actually see R2 in action! a cool invention to make that thing move smoothly."

While talking to the cast and crew of Beast, it is obvious that a strong cameraderie has developed between them."That's something which very special about the Gateway," Allen comments/"Many times our patrons will tell us that they've seen the original production on Broadway andthey feel our version was better.I thank them politely but there are times I honestly agree with them.There are certain reasons:we have a greater opportunity to have 'heart' in our shows.We're a close-knit community with everyone living right here in the old hotel which is now our Staff house.People often grow very close under those circumstances and we tend to become a family.On Broadway, it's a job and there are good actors and good shows.After six months it tends to get stale.Out here we never have a chance to get stale.The show is cast, rehearsed and running for three weeks.It becomes a special experience for everyone involved and then it closes."

If the Gateway is indeed a family, then it has some pretty illustrious members.Down through the years some outstanding Broadway names have appeared at the Gateway on their way to the top.Robert Duvall, Geraldine Page,Betty Field, James Darren, Paul Ford,Mimi Hines,Ken Howard, Arnold Stang, Hans Conreid and Bill Hayes made vivid impressions on Gateway audiences when they played there.Two of the brightest talents currently on New York stages have played major roles at the Gateway in recent summers.Elizabeth Stanley, who was featured in John Doyle's acclaimed version of Company and was recently in the short-lived Cry-Baby, was seen in the Bellport versions of Sugar and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.Nick Spangler is currently starring as Matt in the Off-Broadway revival of The Fantasticks and previously played that same role at The Gateway.He credits his current stint directly to his summer on Long Island . "The late Bobby Oliver was already cast in The Fantasticks revival when they were looking for someone to cover the role of Matt." recalls Spangler. "He suggested me.I eventually took over the role full time and I can't seem to let go of it!"

It seems as though the Gateway Playhouse boasts a company that has truly bonded.The Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein musical Showboat will be chugging onto the Bellport stage beginning July 10th.In that immortal show, the character of Captain andy boasts that his troupe is "one big, happy family".The same words can be uttered by Paul Allen.At the same time, a famous lyric from Showboat also applies to this 67 year old theatrical institution:"It just keeps rollin'.It keeps on rollin' along."

Upcoming Gateway productions:

July 9-26- Disney's Beauty and the Beast (Patchogue)

July 30-Aug 23Showboat (Bellport)

Aug 27-Sept 13The Producers (Patchogue)

Sept 17- Oct 4The Wedding Singer (Bellport)

To purchase tickets call either (631) 286-1133 or 1 (888) 4TIXNOW

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Photos Courtesy of Gateway Playhouse

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From This Author Joseph F. Panarello

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