It is no secret that the quaint little town of Hopewell has much going on for it. The eclectic mix of cafes, restaurants, playgrounds and specialty shops all within walking distance make it the appealing destination come rain or shine. Not many however know that this gem of a town is also the home of an equally charming little theater, with a visionary pair of Hopewell residents at the helm.
One sunny afternoon, I step into the dimly lit theater to interview Julie and Bob Thick. Monday is the only day off in the couple’s yearlong routine of a six-day working week. It’s just the three of us inside the meditative surrounds of this beautifully worn out theater. The foyer walls are covered with hundreds of black and white portraits of cast members, enhancing the humbling effect so characteristic of playhouses.
It was thirty years ago when Julie and Bob took over a movie theater that dated back to the 40s. Earlier incarnations of the building included a school and even a fire department. On June 29th 1984, Hopewell’s Off-Broadstreet Theater (OBT) opened its door offering a more affordable take on the dinner theater. Punters would come in an hour or so before curtain call for tea, coffee, and a choice of desserts. An impressive 239 shows later, the quirky set up remains as a signature offering of OBT.
Julie had graduated with an economics degree from Rutgers’ Douglas College, followed by a dance stint in NYC where she was exposed to the work of jazz and tap masters such as Luigi and Gregory Hines. Growing up, theater outings were a staple in Julie’s family life, so it was only natural for her drift back into the arts after a short career in the corporate world. As well as being the co-producer, Julie choreographs OBT productions.
From a young age, films became Bob’s babysitter with his family being movie theater owners. He went on to become a performing artist and is the director and co-producer of all OBT shows. A passion for the arts is certainly palpable when Bob speaks about the medium as an intrinsic means of communication, which ought to be familiar to all whether as observers or doers.
Speaking about their entrepreneurial undertaking to run a small town theater that financially relies on tickets sales only, Julie affirms that they are lucky to be pursuing what they so enjoy. Between the two of them, she explains, they have been able to merge all the different aspects of their lives as far as the music, the dance and the business end of it, and make it work.
In an attempt to reconcile artistic integrity with commercial viability and audience expectations, Julie and Bob do so with the utmost respect for their loyal group of subscribers. The latter hail not only from Mercer County and the wider 50 miles radius, some punters come from as far as New York and Baltimore.
“We don’t pretend to be a Broadway house, but we do like to bring what we think is a consistent and good entertaining style of theater” asserts Bob. Julie adds: “we try to keep a pretty eclectic mix. We try not to have just musicals or just comedies or just classics, we mix it up”. Part of what makes OBT unique is its program of shows that are not seen in many places. Some years ago, the theater presented the work of a revered British playwright by the name of Ray Cooney for the first time in New Jersey. His work has since become a box office success in other New Jersey theaters.
Previous highlights have included Guys and Dolls, the Merchant of Venice, and Soup du Jour. The latter a work that was also presented in New Jersey for the first time back in 2009.
Young at art
Modeled after Rocky and Bullwinkle’s Fractured Fairy Tales, the shows presented within OBT’s children series are improvisational and participatory. The kids are encouraged to join in with the sound effects such as thunderstorms, which helps keep engaged throughout the 45mn. This is an equally popular strand in OBT’s calendar; it is indeed how I heard about the theater in the first place, from a neighbor who endearingly spoke about taking her son to some of the shows over a decade ago. Some children who have attended the shows in the past are now parents themselves and they bring their own children to the theater.
“It’s something that can affect them for the rest of their lives” explains Bob. “We hope that it’s an introduction to theater and that they will continue to go to our shows and other live shows, and not just grow up only knowing about movies or what’s on their computers. It’s nice for them to have the actual interaction of a story”.
Over the years, no less than 300 young people have worked at OBT. The perks for young servers include free ticket – “a cheap date night!” explains Julie enthusiastically, “it’s an opportunity for high school kids that wouldn’t exist otherwise”.
A cultural microcosm
“Restaurants can tell when it’s a show night in Hopewell Boro” notes Julie. They would have an influx of customers for an early dinner seating on a Friday or a Saturday, which allows them to continue to operate as usual further into the evening. “All businesses are symbiotic to a degree, but particularly the relationship between the theater and the restaurant can be very precious” adds Bob.
A kitchen was once needed for a production set. Word got out and in no time Julie and Bob ended up with two kitchens donated from neighbors. On other occasions, neighbors donated a stuffed raccoon that continues to occasionally appear on sets, and a rather useful set of vintage costumes from the 60s and 70s. It gets better! Antique shops would lend furniture pieces, which end up being sold through the theater following the special thanks at the end of the show. Would this ever happen with a New York or a London Theater? I can’t help but wonder.
I leave the interview feeling energized and determined to make the most of this valuable cultural institution at my doorstep. I hope that many of you will do too. For a theater that runs on no public funding whatsoever, it certainly succeeds at punching above its weight. Supporting it by attending the shows is the least we can do and you will have a good time too!
Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs is on Friday July 11th, 10am & Saturday 12th, 10:30am. Tickets are $4 per person. For Reservations Call (609) 466-2766.