Steiner Returns to Surflight; Theater Revived By Producer Al ParinelloNew Owner Closes Deal With TD Bank
Persistence paid off for Steve Steiner on Monday when he returned to the helm at Surflight Theatre and formally announced a full slate of musicals this summer at the Beach Haven landmark that had been shuttered since 2014.
Steiner, who had been the producing artistic director at Surflight from 1998 through 2010, when he was removed from that position by the theater’s board of trustees, immediately set out to find financial backers to reopen the theater after those trustees filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in February 2015.
In March 2015, for example, court-appointed bankruptcy trustee John McDonnell rejected Steiner’s offer to buy Surflight. “The money was too low,” McDonnell told The SandPaper at that time. “We have had several other offers that were significantly higher.” Then, when the property went up for auction in August 2015, Steiner was unable to make a bid because his backer had backed off, tired, Steiner said at that time, of keeping money frozen up while the byzantine process of liquidation proceeded.
Other potential Surflight saviors emerged: a local developer who wanted to turn the Surflight property into a mini-convention center, a Massachusetts-based impresario with a record of resurrecting historical but failed theaters, an LBI-based group that wanted the borough of Beach Haven to purchase the property and rent it to the group so it could operate the theater. Steiner repeatedly told The SandPaper he was still working on finding investors, but it seemed as if he had faded into the background.
Then in December, Steiner teamed up with Al Parinello, who was introduced at a Monday press conference at the New Jersey Maritime Museum in Beach Haven.
Parinello, a New Jersey native and current Bergen County resident who also owns a summer home in Brigantine, had been the owner of the alternative rock radio station WJSE-FM 102.7 from 1994 to 2005. He laid out the long and winding road that eventually led him from WJSE to purchasing Surflight for slightly under $2 million.
WJSE, said Parinello, was “very popular, the highest rated rock station in New Jersey.” So he branched out to producing alternative rock shows at two of the Trump organization’s three Atlantic City casinos. They, too, proved popular, so much so that the president of the remaining Trump casino, the Trump Plaza, wanted to get in on the action, Parinello said. But he wasn’t interested in alternative rock shows.
“He said, ‘It tends to be a more mature crowd (at the Plaza).’ He said, ‘You can do a Broadway play?’ I said, sure, yes.”
The only problem was that Parinello didn’t know the first thing about producing a musical. Then again, he hadn’t known the first thing about producing a live alternative rock show.
So Parinello cast around for help and a friend recommended he get in touch with Steiner.
“We did two years of great Broadway plays (in A.C.): “Singing in the Rain,” “Jekyll & Hyde,” “Cabaret,” etc. We brought a quarter-million people into Atlantic City.”
Parinello went on to become a real estate investor and producer of New York theatrics and movies, best-known for being the lead producer of the current production of “The Fantasticks,” the longest-running musical in history. He decided on a new challenge, owning a theater and bringing in Steiner.
“This man knows this industry,” he said of Steiner. “He lives this industry. Steve has done an amazing job of running the theater.”
At the height of his run as artistic director, said Parinello, Steiner’s Surflight sold 57,000 tickets a season for main stage shows. After Steiner was gone, he said, that number dropped to 22,000. He rattled off similar figures for children’s theater tickets.
Steiner, said the theater’s new owner, invented Surflight to Go (Surflight’s traveling troupe that visits schools throughout the Garden State); ran acting, music and dancing classes; started a well-received concert series; and introduced a Christmas season show.
“He did it when it (Surflight) had $4 million of debt and didn’t miss a payment,” said Parinello.
Parinello said he started the process of buying Surflight from TD Bank in December.
“It ruined my Christmas. It was a lot of pulling teeth,” he said of the experience.
But, he said, the deal was finally closed last week when he and his wife were out of the country on vacation.
The borough of Beach Haven didn’t have to chip in any money. Indeed, said Mayor Nancy Taggart Davis, who was at the press conference, the borough will actually be receiving tax revenue from the theater.
So Surflight has a new owner, who will rent the 0.61-acre property, which includes the Show Place Ice Cream Parlour, a set-building shop, housing for cast and crew and office space as well as the theater proper, to Steiner.
Regarding the property’s physical condition, an estimate has said it would take $570,000 for a total restoration. But, said Steiner, only a fifth of that work, at best, needs be done to reopen this June.
“They left the heat on,” said Kevin Stretch of Stretch Cleaning & Restoration. “It looked a lot better than I expected.”
“I took a hard look at it, obviously, before I wrote the check,” added Parinello.
The theater’s stock of costumes no longer exists, but this, also, is not a problem. Steiner wasn’t in retirement after leaving Surflight in 2010. His Ocean Professional Theatre Company produced shows at Barnegat High School for a couple of summers and he was producing shows all around the country, including several national tours, for the past five or six years.
“We have the costumes for ‘Footloose,’ ‘Hairspray’ and ‘Million Dollar Quartet,’” said Steiner, mentioning some of the shows that are scheduled for Surflight this summer.
He went on to say he had designed a set that could be used for the first three shows of the season, with just “redressing” needed for each production.
Steiner said he is reassembling much of his team from the time he was at Surflight. He can count on the help of his wife, Gail Anderson Steiner. He’s also bringing back group sales marketer Ruth Blankemeyer; one of his go-to directors, Paula Sloan, who staged many shows for Steiner at Surflight and in Barnegat; and frequent collaborator Andrew Foote.
“Andrew will be with us the whole season,” said Steiner. “He’s in Korea now, understudying the role of Jekyll and Hyde.”
Steiner has also worked out a deal with Lisa Carlson of Manahawkin’s Starlight Performing Arts Center, who used to perform for Steiner, to organize Surflight’s theater training classes and help with the cast of some 20 kids expected to be performing in one of this summer’s shows, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
Steiner has been preparing for the reopening for months. He has planned the 2017 season, obtained rights to the shows and rented a space for New York City auditions.
Indeed, Surflight was already selling tickets even before the press conference.
“I bought my tickets for the entire season,” said Beach Haven resident Ginnie Gottshall, a fan of Surflight for many decades.
The 2017 main stage season includes “Footloose,” June 23 through July 9; the aforementioned “Joseph,” July 11-23; “Disney’s Newsies,” a Surflight premiere, July 25 to Aug. 13; “Hairspray,” Aug. 15-27; “Million Dollar Quartet,” Aug. 29 to Sept. 10; and “Home for the Holidays: A Surflight Celebration,” Dec. 7-17.
The children’s theater season will consist of a rotation of “Cinderella,” “Peter Pan,” “Snow White,” “Wizard of Oz,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Jungle Book” and “Winnie the Pooh.”
A concert season is still being developed. However, some acts have already been signed including John Davidson on July 31; the Coasters, Drifters and Platters on Aug. 7; “Comedy Tonight” featuring three comics on Aug. 21; and the 19-piece big band the New Millennium Jazz Band playing the Sinatra songbook on Nov. 25.
The Surflight Education Division’s local students will present the high school version of “Rock of Ages” on Oct. 20, 21 and 22.
Finally, the Show Place will open in June.
Main stage tickets will be $39, with discounts for multiple-show orders. Children’s theater tickets are $12 while seats for the concert series shows so far range from $12.50 to $37.50.
Surflight’s core cast this summer will consist of young, non-Equity actors. A couple of Equity members may be brought in for each show, said the artistic director, and “Million Dollar Quartet” will have its own special cast because its Surflight performances will kick off a national tour. For example, Todd Meredith, the star of Steiner’s productions of “Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story,” will return to Surflight playing rockabilly star Carl Perkins, best known for his song “Blue Suede Shoes.”
The young non-union cast makes financial sense for a theater that will have to find its sea legs as it tries to draw back old Surflight fans and attract new ones. But there’s another reason for the choice to work with young college students and recent college grads. Parinello and Steiner want Surflight to reopen with the original mission of its founder, Joseph P. Hayes, “to serve as a training ground for young artists in a supportive summer stock environment and to provide quality entertainment to the residents and vacationers of Long Beach Island.”
It was a mission Surflight once fulfilled, with some 40 of the theater’s young performers eventually making their mark on Broadway.
“The ultimate goal is to bring this theater back and make it as wonderful as it once was,” said Parinello. “It’s a gem, it’s a trophy, it’s a prize of New Jersey. We’re here to save it, to bring it back, to make it better.”
Parinello talked of his life growing up in Hoboken.
“Hoboken had zero culture in the 1960s,” he said. It had some movie theaters and plenty of bars with pianos and of course “everybody thought they knew Frank Sinatra.”
But Parinello’s father remarried while he was still a young child. Afterwards, Parinello said his stepmother took everybody to the Sullivan Street Theatre in Greenwich Village where he saw the original production of “The Fantasticks.”
“Theater is a very, very special place,” Parinello told those at the press conference. “It changed my life … Here we are 50 years later and I’m currently the producer of ‘The Fantasticks.’”
“Actors are very, very special people,” Parinello continued. “I don’t care if they’re Academy Award winners or they’ve just done three or four commercials. All the kids started in community (summer stock) theater, sleeping on a bed with a 2-inch mattress in a room filled with kids.”
As hard as Parinello and Steiner are working to bring Surflight up from the grave it had sat in for two years, they know they can’t do it alone.
“We need help,” said the theater owner. “We need people to volunteer, to make donations, people to buy tickets. If the community doesn’t respond to us, guess what? We go away again.”