Westchester Broadway Theatre Celebrates 40 Years of Great ShowsPublished: Tuesday, September 16, 2014 By: Colette Connolly
Coming out of the “Mad Men” era of New York’s advertising industry to create Westchester’s first dinner theater turned out to be a fortuitous move for Westchester Broadway Theatre’s founders Bob Funking and Bill Stutler.
Bob Funking, left, and Bill Stutler, creatorof Westchester Broadway Theatre,
The idea of creating a place where suburbanites could see Broadway quality theater productions at half the price of a New York City show was hatched shortly after Stutler visited a dinner theater in his home state of West Virginia in the early 1970s.
They were keen to bring the same kind of experience to Westchester audiences.
“It looked like fun,” Stutler said of the entertainment trend across the country at that time.
In July, the popular venue celebrated its 40th anniversary, all of it in the same Elmsford corporate park since its inception. (It has been in its current space since 1991). The 500-seat theater has hosted 184 main-stage productions and nearly 1,000 Monday and Tuesday special events and concerts.
Stutler and Funking chose to use professionals from the Actors’ Equity Association, the union that represents stage actors and managers, instead of the nonunion actors that some other dinner theaters often use.
Being close to Manhattan didn’t dissuade Stutler or Funking.
“We discovered that only six percent of Westchester residents actually go to Broadway shows anyway,” Funking noted. “Tourists make up for about 60 percent of their sales.”
Despite having little experience in either the theater and the restaurant industry, the partners forged ahead.
“The good thing was that we knew how to put a presentation together,” Stutler said of using their expertise in advertising and marketing to help them attract investors.
They hired an architect to design a space suitable for a dinner theater and included the construction of comfortable seating that would allow everyone a good view of the stage. In addition, there was the installation of professional quality lighting. The idea of providing audiences with an intimate performance was crucial to Stutler and Funking.
Opening in 1974 as an Evening Dinner Theatre, the pair chose “Kiss Me, Kate” as its debut production. When the operation moved to its current location, it was rebranded as Westchester Broadway Theatre.
While running the day-to-day operation is something they’re both involved in, auditioning is what they enjoy most. Before putting on a production, Stutler and Funking spend several days in Manhattan with a musical director