BWW Interview: AD Bob Kelly of Candlelight Theatre
There is no one in the tri-state region with more live theater experience than Bob Kelly, Artistic Director at Candlelight Dinner Theatre. Founded in 1969 by John and Lena O'Toole and Julian and Annabelle Borris, it quickly became a nexus for hundreds of aspiring actors, where all were inspired to self-invent and where ambition was oxygen. Aisle Say was privileged to be in productions during those early years and reveled in these experiences. Neither family was anywhere near wealthy. Passion drove the project to convert the shuttered, cob-webby, bat invested barn into a theater. I don't know for certain, but if there WAS a budget, it was quickly extinguished. It didn't really matter. They were going to do it. If memory serves, tickets were $6.50 at the opening of the hilarious FORUM and it was BYOB. (Julian played Pseudolis and starred in many productions. John's mainstays were Harold Hill and Luther Billis). For the first two years or so, John took a lot of heat for his typo-ridden handwritten programs. And I (fondly?) remember the bathrooms were circa 1902 (more heat for the founders).
For the second show I only vaguely recall my first Candlelight review (1970) by that craven, flap-mouthed, maggot-pie News Journal reviewer, Otto Dekom: "Firestone jumped around the stage like a jack-in-the-box. His discordant singing voice ascends to perhaps a full half octave. One hopes he did not quit his day job for a career in theater".
Never were there more caring nurturers than the 4 founders. At their retirement, a few other entrepreneurs tried to continue Candlelight's legacy. All were unsuccessful until Kelly was hired as AD in 2012. The habitat he has constructed was as humane as that of the founders.
Post March 13, the Candlelight community has rallied around him and this most venerable institution with the passion and energy equal to that which they provide their patrons.
You must understand, dear readers, 'theatre people' are different. 'Theatre people' see theater as a religion and are the parishioners. To steal a line from the (hopefully) upcoming SWEET CHARITY, it is the 'rhythm of our lives'. Theatre is a celebration of the divine mystery of what happens when a performance (or performers) onstage catch fire.
There is quote from the 1950 "All About Eve" that sums it up. The acerbic theatre critic Addison Dewitt (will wonders never cease...an acerbic theatre critic?) proclaims "We are a breed apart from the rest of humanity, we Theatre Folk. We are the original displaced personalities".
Candlelight, DE Theatre, UD REP must either pay deposits or total royalty payments upfront to the publishing houses for their seasons. The universe hit pause. Reports Kelly, "Our second show SOMETHING AFOOT" was to open March 27. We lost that, along with RUMORS in May. We don't know about July's SWEET CHARITY. The cast is set and it breaks my heart to possibly let these guys down. We've gotta give them some hope! MEMPHIS is scheduled for September and SCROOGE for November".
The upfront monies are long gone. Revenue stopped in a nanosecond. The company has long standing children's summer camp and master classes. Both are in jeopardy.
None of the staff has been furloughed so far, but he admits "that may change sometime soon and they will then apply for unemployment". He's plowed through 3 possible Plan B scenarios, "all of which have been deep sixed".
'Had this happened 8 years ago" continues Kelly, "the theatre would already be closed". Candlelight became a 501(3) and the Board of Directors throughout the years have been strong and willing advocates. "We had a financial crisis six years ago", states Kelly. "Without State Senator Cathy Cloutier's support we had no option but to close the curtain then".
Independent of this conversation, Aisle Say recalls that event. Sen Cloutier walked into a meeting and was given the dire news. "NO WAY". An about face out the door and two hours later she returned with a major check. The show(s) went on.
In 2018 Candlelight went on to win 2 non-profit awards in DE: 1 by the Small Business Administration and 1 by patrons. Senator Cloutier understood how important arts is to the community and the state.
Aisle Say has always stated that Candlelight is the greatest theatrical value in the state: dinner and theatre for $65? This also means the margin of error is as thin as a hummingbird's beak.
Delaware Theatre Company and UD REP are Actors Equity theatres. The stipend that Candlelight performers receive is farcical in comparison. In a baseball analogy, it is the gap between the per game pay of the Phillies' Bryce Harper at $200,000.00 to that of a bench sitter at minor league Frawley Stadium. Politically speaking, it would be likened to the total number of Trump's lies versus the total number of lies of every president in US history.
So, with regard to Candlelight's actors, creative crew and staff, check the favorite power ballad from A CHORUS LINE and you get the picture.
Kelly and his volunteer crew are spending their time cleaning out the admitted 'rats warren' of the downstairs costume shop. He and production manager Max Redman brought two storage barns into the back parking lot to itemize costumes and set pieces.
Marketing manager Betsy Connor has been posting online clips of past performances to "Keep Candlelight Glowing".
Kelly and Bartender/Quizzo host/Videographer Dan Healy are working on a video celebrating the history of Arden and the theatre. The 3 Ardens were founded under English law. No one owns the property beneath the homes. The lease is for 99 years. The theatre is so leased.
The first structure of what was to become the theatre was the Harvey Barn. Then it was made into a theatre, the Robin Hood Dell (The Forest of Arden was the setting for Shakespeare's AS YOU LIKE IT).
Kelly and Healy are researching vintage photos for the video. Among those stars of the 1950's who performed at Robin Hood Dell were Will Geer, Celeste Holm, Anthony Perkins a/k/a Norman Bates and Pennsville's favorite son, the wisecracking John McLain (Bruce Willis). Here's an added snippet uncovered by these sleuths: the game of monopoly was first played in Arden.
And then later in the 70's Sue Stroman was a regular performer. Here's an idea. Hit her up for a fund raiser.