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. “