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The Show Must Go On-- for 40 Years!
Forty years ago, on July 9th, 1974, Bob Funking and Bill Stutler brought dinner theater to an office park in Elmsford, NY.
When they opened, the theatre was then known as "An Evening Dinner Theatre", and Kiss Me, Kate was their first production. At the time, there were 94 professional dinner theaters in the U.S. Although this number has since decreased drastically, according to Bill Stutler.
“An Evening Dinner Theatre” was renamed “Westchester Broadway Theatre” when it moved locations down the street to a specially designed new venue in 1991. The reason for the move was the need for a bigger facility and added state-of-the-art technologies.
The Westchester Broadway Theatre is still a huge success, keeping audiences entertained for 40 years now.
Both Funking and Stutler claim that they designed the theater to be as comfortable as possible. “The way we looked at it was that people are going to be here for five hours, from dinner through the end of the show,” Funking says, “So every seat faces the stage and the seating is comfortable.”
The theatre's location is also very important to its success: Being close to New York City has a positive impact on the Westchester Broadway Theatre, since the theatre can audition and rehearse in Manhattan and draw performers from Actor's Equity and Musicians from the NY Musician's union.
In the early years, the schedule alternated between musicals and comedies, but soon, the producers decided to switch to doing only musicals which were more popular.
When it is suggested that two guys who have been at it for 40 years would know exactly what Westchester audiences want, the guys in question laugh out loud. “We like to think that we know what they want, but, we are always surprised! There is no sure way to gauge the popularity of a production beforehand!”
The biggest surprise was the production of Phantom by Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit, “it was a smash hit and ran at WBT for nine months in our second year at the new theatre!”
“The runs used to be longer by design”, Funking says, “When we closed the old theater in 1991, the last show there, Me and My Girl, ran for 26 weeks, half a year. The show before that, Anything Goes, for 22 weeks. The show before that, Camelot, for 20 weeks and 42nd Street, 23 weeks.” he says.
The runs today average between 6 and 14 weeks. They repeat favorite shows about every 10 years.
Westchester Broadway Theatre has been a starting ground for dozens of stars who went on to Broadway, TV and films, including: John Lloyd Young (Original Jersey Boys and the new movie); Will Swenson (Hair, Les Miserables); Carolee Carmello (Mamma Mia!); Scott Bakula (NCIS New Orleans, Quantum Leap ); Randy Graff (City of Angels); Estelle Harris (Seinfeld); Bob Cuccioli (Jekyll & Hyde, Spiderman); Faith Prince (Guys & Dolls) and Suzyn Waldman, now a radio voice for the New York Yankees.
Directors and choreographers of note also got early work in Elmsford. Bill Stutler reminds us that “Rob Marshall directed here before going on to direct the Oscar-winning Chicago, and his sister, Kathleen Marshall, performed here and assisted Rob Ashford (Thoroughly Modern Millie) when he directed A Chorus Line here.” Susan Stroman choreographed Gypsy and Sugar Babies here before racking up Tonys for The Producers, Contact, Show Boat, Crazy for You and Oklahoma!
Over the years, many memorable moments have happened at the the theatre, especially during performance. Funking had a story to share:
“During a performance of Christmas Inn, an actress sat down on a sheet-covered chair and also, inadvertently, sat on the house cat, Charlie. She jumped up and the cat let out a piercing shriek,” Funking says with a laugh. “But the funny part was that the cat got down and was completely indignant. He got down and gave her a look and then paraded off slowly. And people asked us how we trained the cat to do that, because he didn’t run off. He slowly strode off. He never went on the stage again.”
Other mishaps involving animals have occurred during WBT productions: During intermission of a performance of Annie, the dog in the role of Sandy went outside and was sprayed by a skunk! Funking and Stutler recall having to inform the audience that unfortunately, Sandy would not be appearing in the show's second act.
When asked what advice could they give to people who aspire to enter the theater business, Funking replied:
“Stay Out! But I’ll tell you why; when we started there were 99 Equity dinner theaters in the US. Now there are probably 6. So it is incredibly difficult.”
Stutler said, “The biggest reason why they failed was because they were built by people and not managed well by them. The one thing that, I’m convinced, is why we are still here, is the way the architect built the theatre. She designed tables with no legs under them, she said the lighting should not be overhead and that every seat should be facing the stage, so no head would block you. In the space that we utilize here, we could fit in a hundred more seats, but, if we did that, we would be out of business.” By utilizing the space in the best way possible, the Westchester Broadway Theatre has been a huge success for forty years.
“Look at how many restaurants are failing in the US, and then you add theatre, which is its own high interest business, and an expensive business, because it’s all people. The fact that we have lasted this long is remarkable even to us.” Funking adds.
Bill and Bob agree that the Westchester Broadway Theatre has changed their lives,
"Changed our lives? It has dominated our lives!" says Bill, "It has taught us how to operate without having other people tell us what to do. The decisions are made here by Bob and I, which changes your life a lot.”
Bob added: “There is also a freedom to it...I think what Bill is saying is that the change in our lives is that it put us in charge of our lives. “
Meet the Banks Children! (Jane Shearin and Gabriel Reis)
We spoke to Jane Shearin and Gabriel Reis, who alternate with Michelle Moughan and Brandon Singel, as Jane and Michael Banks in Mary Poppins at Westchester Broadway Theatre. We asked them to share a little bit about their off-stage lives:
Jane: I go to school at Reed Intermediate School in Newtown, CT, where I’m finishing up 6th grade. I would say my favorite subject would be math. . . I just love math. I am involved in the arts at my school, I’m in chorus and an extra chorus program called concert choir. I also participate in my school musical each year. Aside from that, I play the guitar and keyboard.
Gabriel: I am a fifth grader in Tenafly, NJ. My favorite subjects are math and science - and of course gym! I play the French Horn in my school's orchestra and also sing in the chorus. I make sure to keep up with my school work so that I can continue doing the things that I love. My teachers are awesome and very supportive. Sometimes I do my homework in the car ride to the theatre. I have been performing since I was eight.
Jane: I am 11 years old and I’m the youngest in my family. I have an older sister who’s 17 and is going to go to college next year at Cornell, and a 20 year old brother who will be a junior at NYU. My brother did musicals from 7th-12th grade but stopped when going off to college. When I’m with my family I like to have family meals, and play games like badminton and tetherball in our backyard. We’re all very busy so it’s really special to have some family time. I have a very sweet 12 year old Dalmatian named Allie who I love very much. In our backyard we have a barn where we have two horses named Phoenix and Dillon. We also have a chicken coop with 13 chickens and we'll be getting 6 more soon. We have a stand in our front yard where we sell their eggs.
Gabriel: I am an only child. I like having family BBQs in my back yard. We have a pool and big area for playing whiffle ball and basketball. I also like going fishing with my dad and ice skating with my mom. I really want a dog but my parents both work and we are not home enough to take care of a pet. However, I do have a betta fish - requires very little care. I have had it for a year already.
Jane: I had seen the movie version of Mary Poppins prior to being in the show, and I had also seen Saving Mr. Banks, but I had never read the book or seen the musical. I've fallen in love with the musical though!
Gabriel: I saw Mary Poppins on Broadway and wanted to audition for it, but it closed. I am so happy to be playing the role of Michael Banks at WBT! Some of my other favorite shows are Beauty and the Beast and Lion King.
Jane: When I’m not performing, I’m usually reading, singing, dancing, or playing soccer. I’m on a travel soccer team and sometimes I practice in my front yard. I take jazz and tap classes, so I do dance a lot, and singing is just something that I can’t stop doing. My first show was when I was 6 and I was a poodle/Dalmatian in 101 Dalmatians. I've continued performing ever since then and I love what I’m doing.
Gabriel: When I'm not performing, I like to play a lot of sports, including hockey and tennis. I also play on the fall and spring travel soccer team and the summer travel baseball team.
Jane: The music on my iPod is 100% show tunes from many musicals. I’d say Frozen is my favorite movie. Currently, my favorite musicals are Wicked, Newsies, Matilda, and Legally Blonde.
Gabriel: My iPod is filled with theatrical songs and oldies from the 70s and 80s, as well as songs from Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, et al. My favorite song right now is Can't Hold Us. One of my favorite movies is Despicable Me 2.
Jane: My dream role? One word. . . . Elphaba. I LOVE Idina Menzel and Wicked is my favorite musical. I love the way Elphaba’s an outsider who makes two friendships that change her life and show that she’s really a great, green person. Other than that I would say Elsa from Frozen because both she and Elphaba aren't afraid to be themselves. . . and they’re both portrayed by Idina.
My best friend and I have this dream that we’re going to be in Wicked together and continue our friendship on the stage. If I don’t make it to Broadway, I’d like to be in a TV series or movie but really. . . Broadway is where I want to be.
Gabriel: A role that I'd really like to play in the future is Gaston in Beauty and the Beast.
Meet The Banks Children! (Brandon Singel and Michelle Moughan)
We interviewed the talented Children Brandon Singel and Michelle Moughan who portray Michael and Jane Banks (alternating with Gabriel Reis and Jane Shearin) in Mary Poppins at WBT. We asked them to share something about their offstage lives:
Brandon: I go to LMK school in Harrison. My favorite subject is Science. I am in the 6th grade. I am in the Glee Club in my school.
Michelle: I go to school at a K - 8 school in Upstate NY, and my favorite subject is probably...math. I actually learned how to recite a little over fifty digits of the number pi ! I am also involved in the arts at my school. I play the violin and I am in the chorus. We just recently had our annual spring concert and art show, which I sang and played my instrument in.
Brandon: My family is very fun and enthusiastic. I do not have any brothers or sisters.
Michelle: I have two younger brothers, Mikey,10 and Max, 9 yrs.old. Mikey plays the trumpet, is a really good chess player, and is into sports like my dad. Max started taking an interest in theatre (my mom is a total theatre buff) and is the comedian of the family. I like to go to the local pool in the summer with my brothers and to my uncle's house in Vermont where we go fishing. Of course, we all love to go to the theatre and whenever we're in New York City, we go to our favorite place to eat: Shake Shack!
Brandon: I have only seen Mary Poppins, the movie, but that was when I was in pre-school.
Michelle: I actually saw Mary Poppins on Broadway right before it closed, and I loved the show! When I saw that WBT was doing it, I just had to audition!
Brandon: Whenever I have free time, either before or after a show, I try to finish up any homework or school work that I have.
Michelle: My teachers are great and give me the work that I need if I'm going to be absent, or if I have to leave early for a performance. I make sure I plan out when I can fit in my school work so I know I have enough time to get it all done. I keep my grades up and I am a member of the National Junior Honor Society, School is important.
Brandon: When I'm not performing, I like to make YouTube videos with my friend Ethan. I also like to play Minecraft with my other friends from school. I have been performing since the 3rd grade - I was a Newsboy in Gypsy at ACT in Yonkers.
Michelle: I have been doing ballet since I was very little, but I first became interested in theatre when I was nine years old. My music teacher suggested I audition for a local musical and I was cast in a role. I have been loving performing ever since! I especially like to dance, and I do Tap, Ballet, Theatre Dance, and Hip Hop! Whenever I am not performing, I am involved in different clubs at school, like Mathletes, and Poetry Club and I am on the Debate team. I have participated in many spelling bees, and advanced to the New York State Scripps Spelling Bee Finals 2 years in a row. I also enjoy knitting and crocheting.
Brandon: I have 3 things in mind of what I want to be when I grow up: a film maker, a science teacher or a video game designer.
Michelle: In the future, I want to keep acting and performing. I also have an ambition to maybe be a fashion designer when I grow up. I have a book full of designs for cool new outfits I thought of.
Brandon: I used to have a cat named Romeo, but he died in December of 2012. If I could have any pet, I'd probably get a dog because they're playful and they are great to bond with.
Michelle: I don't have a pet, but my dream pet is definitely a Pug! I love their little wrinkly faces, they're just too cute! If I ever had a dog, that would be my first choice.
Michelle: My iPod is full of show tunes from many musicals, and one of my favorite singers is Sutton Foster!
Brandon: We have a whole-house sound system, so I don't have or need an iPod for music.
Michelle: One of my all-time favorite movies is "Paul Blart, Mall Cop". Every time I see it, it never gets old. My favorite shows on Broadway right now are Matilda, Newsies and Violet the Musical. There are so many good musicals, I can't choose my favorite one!
Brandon: If I could play any role, I would want to play the Artful Dodger in OLIVER, because on the inside he's a dark, mysterious guy, part of a pick-pocketing group, but on the outside he's just a fun person to be around!
Michelle: My dream role was actually Jane Banks ever since I saw it on Broadway. I hoped that there would be auditions for the role, but then I found out it was closing. I hoped that there would be another theatre doing "Mary Poppins" so I could audition for Jane, and sure enough, here it was! When I'm older, I think the role Eliza Doolittle would be really fun. I just love classic shows like My Fair Lady! I have to admit, one of my other favorite roles is actually Mary Poppins! That's definitely another one I would love to play!
Mrs. Banks (Leisa Mathers) tells all!
I was born and grew up in Melbourne, Australia. I was what my parents fondly termed the 'oops' baby. My 2 sisters and brother are substantially older than me (the eldest being 14 years older) so despite having siblings I sort of grew up like an only child.
The city of Melbourne is situated around a very large bay and while the urban areas do spread inland a good portion of it is around the coastal bayside areas. So not long after I was born my parents achieved a life long dream of living by the sea. So, for me, I was lucky enough to grow up only a 10 minute bike ride from the beach. Consequently my love for surf, sun and sand has never left me.
Growing up, my Father was the Art Director of a large advertising agency. From even before I can remember I was doing print ads and commercials and continued to do so through my teens. My parents saw it as a great way to build a college fund.
When I was growing up, every Sunday each member of the family was allowed to play some music of their choice. And because of the large age gaps in my family the music ranged from Mozart to Nat King Cole to Pink Floyd to Abba. So, I've got it all on my iPod. Cosi Fan Tutte, Ella Fitzgerald, The Beatles, Sting, Green Day, Pink and Pharrell Williams, to mention just a few.
Leisa Mather (R) as Mrs. Banks with Jan Neuberger & Brandon Singel.
Also, being a painfully shy child at around the age of 12 my parents enrolled me in a youth theater program at a large drama school. I took to it like the proverbial duck to water and loved discovering that I could mask my shyness by creating wonderful characters.
Once I was in High School, I did all the school musicals and developed a close relationship with my music teacher Mrs. Batour. I will always remember after doing a production of The Boyfriend in which I played Maisie, she came up to me and said "Have you ever thought about performing as a career? Because I think you've got what it takes."
The first time I heard of Mary Poppins is from the wonderful Disney film version starring Julie Andrews. I thought she was perfect instead of merely practically perfect.I am very familiar with the movie. The musical takes more of the path of the books which are a little darker in context.
I think theater is still finding its' way with turning movies into musicals. I think sometimes they are incredible and then other times not. The ones that aren't so successful tend to get carried away with the visuals and the music and forget about the story. I think what makes theater great is the journey the story of a show takes us on. So it needs to take precedence and be strong.
Some of my favorite shows are Ragtime, Anything Goes, On The Twentieth Century, Little Shop of Horrors, and Sweeney Todd. Two of my dream roles would be Mama Rose in Gypsy and Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd.
I consider myself to be very fortunate having done 4 previous shows at WBT. Beauty and The Beast, Legally Blonde, Miracle on 34th Street, and The Sound of Music. What I love most about working at WBT is that it has become like family. It always welcomes me with open arms every time I come back. Everyone, from crew, to office, to management. I always have a wonderful time.
As Miss Finley w/ Peter Marinos in Miracle On 34th Sreet