For 10 years, producer-director Paul Herron aspired to bring local theater to Dante Hall, the jewel-box of a performing arts center in downtown Atlantic City. After a few dark years, Dante Hall reopened in 2011 for regular live performances. Now, it’s also home to the Atlantic City Theater Company (ACT).
From the turn of the 20th century until the mid-1930s, Atlantic City was a barnstorming theater town. Like a scene out of “42nd Street,” it was populated by dreamy understudies and stage-door Johnnies, with a broken heart for every footlight.
In those halcyon days, along with New Haven, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, Atlantic City was part of the out-of-town circuit for shows heading to New York. Its grand old theater palaces ? the Apollo, the Globe and the Woods ? served up pre-Broadway runs of plays by the likes of George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart and the Gershwins, among others, with up-and-coming actors including Edward G. Robinson, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, the Marx Brothers, and Humphrey Bogart. Revues were popular: Atlantic City was an early home of Earl Carroll’s Vanities, George White’s Scandals, and of course, the great-grandma of all girlie shows, the Ziegfeld Follies.
The glory days of live theater in Atlantic City ended with the Great Depression. And while the casino era re-launched live theater with road shows of popular musicals, AC has never had a resident community theater.
Until now. Theater veteran Paul Herron, formerly of the Margate Little Theater and Fool Moon Theater in Ventnor as well as other troupes around the country, has created the Atlantic City Theater Company, or ACT, which has made its home at the Dante Hall Theater of the Arts.
In its inaugural season, ACT will present three crowd-pleasers: “The Sunshine Boys,” Neil Simon’s acerbic comedy about aging vaudeville partners; “Steel Magnolias,” Robert Harling’s tragicomic take on love and loss; and “The Dining Room,” A.R. Gurney’s comedy of manners about a vanishing species: upper-crust WASPs.
Herron is taking his cues from Philadelphia’s popular Wall Street Theatre, the nation’s oldest theater company, which has successfully increased its subscription base despite a general decline in audiences for live theater.
“People aren’t going out as much as they did two decades ago, for one reason because they have too many other options,” says Herron. The Wall Street Theatre “bucked that trend by going mainstream,” eschewing ponderous theater in the Edward Albee-Samuel Beckett vein in favor of popular confections like “Arsenic and Old Lace,” “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” and “Elf.”
That approach doesn’t mean ACT’s production lineup is lightweight, Herron insists.
“‘The Sunshine Boys’ is not just bang, bang, bang, joke. It’s a very serious play about old age, losing your faculties, and fear of unknown as the people you know and love die. All of Neil Simon is drenched in sorrow, but that’s his genius ? he can make it funny. ‘Steel Magnolias’ is about the loss of a child. It’s really tough material which happens to be hysterical at times.
“You’ll laugh, you’ll have a good time,” says Herron. “But you won’t leave unscathed.”
Herron has had his eye on Dante Hall since 2003, when a $3.5 million grant from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority helped transform the former church social hall into a performing arts center. “I wanted to have the first company in here, to reside here and build something for the community,” he says.
Early attempts proved fruitless, so Herron went on to produce and direct in the Downbeach area, building a solid audience along the way. With the city’s renewed commitment to building an Arts District, centered around the Wave Arts Garage on Mississippi Avenue and the vibrant neighborhood of Ducktown, he knew it was time to try again.
“The time is right, and the situation in the city might be right,” says Herron. “This is the first resident company here. I think this is what this hall needs.”
Theater Manager Stephanie Clineman of Richard Stockton College, which took over management of the theater after two dark years in 2011, shares that goal. “We want to put on our own productions from the ground up, get productions in there with full so we can build on community support.”
She says the hall’s location ? “right down the street from Boardwalk Hall and the Arts Garage, very close to The Walk [shopping district], right in the heart of the Arts District” ? should make it a prime destination for people looking for a night on the town; the hall will collaborate with local restaurants to offer dinner-and-a-show packages, further enticing an audience that Herron says has been waiting in the wings for this kind of entertainment.
“People miss the arts,” he says. Theater lovers who patronized his shows in the Downbeach area “might skew a little older, but this is a bright, appreciative audience that’s looking for something like this. If we bring in the right material and perform it in a way that’s upscale, we could be the theater of record in Atlantic City.”
Take a Bow
The revolving bill of fare at Dante Hall includes regular concerts, from opera to folk to classical music, as well as open mic poetry nights, children’s shows, and musical theater. Dante Hall also has served as a screening room for the Garden State Film Festival and Downbeach Film Festival, and a showcase for the popular Miss’d America pageant, a zany LGBT spoof of beauty contests that takes place a week after the traditional Miss America pageant. The diversity of offerings “kind of fulfills our goal of being the home of arts in the community,” says Clineman.
Michael Hartman, artistic director of the Greater Ocean City Theatre Company, will bring his star-spangled production of “American Anthem” to the stage in June. He calls Dante Hall “the perfect space to perform intimate productions,” and hails its reemergence as a hub of performance in the city. “It’s always nice to see arts groups work together to celebrate theatre, music and dance.”
And there’s not a bad seat in the 240-capacity hall, complete with stained glass windows, plaster statues of Comedy and Tragedy, and an old-fashioned balcony.
“When they refurbished the building, a large chunk of the money they invested went to state-of-the-art equipment for sound and lighting, so we have a wonderful professional installation of our audio,” says Clineman. And after all, the former church hall is also said to have served as a gymnasium for generations of Catholic school children.
“So it lends itself to great acoustics,” says Clineman. “Have you ever yelled out loud in a school gym?”
14 North Mississippi Avenue
Atlantic City, NJ 08401