Group Says Action Is Urgent to Revive Surflight Theatre

Implores Beach Haven to Buy Site Before 2017
By RICK MELLERUP | Sep 27, 2016
File Photo by: Ryan Morrill The Surflight Theatre in Beach Haven

The clock, says LBI Theatre Inc., is ticking on Surflight Theatre.

LBI Theatre Inc. is a group trying to convince Beach Haven borough and Long Beach Township to purchase the theater and its 0.61-acre complex in the heart of the Queen City that includes the former Show Place ice cream parlor, a cast house, a scene building shop, a single family house and offices. The entire complex has been closed since the winter of 2015 due to bankruptcy and is now owned by TD Bank.

If Beach Haven and Long Beach Township were to purchase the complex, LBI Theatre Inc. would enter into a long-term lease with the governing bodies and operate the summer stock theater once again. It proposed its plan months ago and Beach Haven Mayor Nancy Taggart Davis expressed an interest in buying the property way back in February 2016. But as reported in The SandPaper in July, any momentum to purchase Surflight has seemingly been lost.

Debra Dolan, a member of the interim LBI Theater Inc. Board of Trustees, addressed the Beach Haven Council at its Sept. 21 agenda meeting.

“I have been watching the discussions of the Beach Haven Council,” she said, reading from a prepared statement, “by way of the minutes, and I’ve been surprised that there have been no public discussions about the Surflight Theatre.

“I am here representing the LBI Theatre Group Inc., a non-profit corporation formed by a group of interested citizens with the single purpose of bringing the Surflight Theatre back to life in Beach Haven – for the benefit of all of Long Beach Island.”

Dolan went on to extol the virtues of Surflight in regards to helping the borough’s economy.

“The Surflight Theatre has been a bright star in the heart and soul of Beach Haven for some 68 years. Literally hundreds of thousands of residents and LBI visitors have come to the theater to see over 250 musicals, the magical children’s theater, and have had the joy of singing for your ice cream at the Show Place.

“In 2015, its last year of operation (actually it was 2014), over 72,000 men, women and children visited Surflight, 212 organized groups of 20 to 106 members visited the theater. Many of these people enjoyed a meal at Uncle Will’s or a bagel from the Bagel Shack or a drink at Buckalew’s or bought a T-shirt at B&B’s. Each summer, Surflight employed over 115 full-time or part-time actors, directors, musicians, technical people, all who spent time and money in Murphy’s (supermarket) or the Chicken or the Egg” (restaurant).

“The Surflight Theatre has been – and, we submit, is – a vitally important part of the economic life of Beach Haven’s business community.”

Dolan proceeded to make the group’s pitch.

“As the council knows, the LBI Theatre Group Inc. has presented a comprehensive plan to bring the theater to life again. A responsible and fiscally sound plan with transparency of operations – that emphasizes business first. It’s a plan that will work!

“TD Bank owns the theater property. TD Bank wants to sell the property. And we understand that TD Bank wants to sell the property by year’s end.

“Surflight is closed – sleeping for a couple of years – but it’s not dead. However – this Island gem is in jeopardy of disappearing – unless action is taken soon.

“We’ve presented a plan that, if enacted, can bring Surflight Theatre back and make a significant positive impact on the local economy – with little or no risk to the taxpayers of Beach Haven.

“We recognize the challenges facing the borough of Beach Haven. We submit that the Surflight Theatre must be saved and we urge the borough of Beach Haven to act. Time is of the essence.”

Councilman Don Kakstis responded that Mayor Davis had spearheaded the borough’s efforts to purchase the theater complex. She was in Europe, he said, but would be back next week.

“We’re working hard on it,” Kakstis continued. “We’ve had people inspect them (the complex buildings). There has been a lot of work behind the scenes.”

Kakstis ended his comments with a rather cryptic comment: “In 45 days, maybe something will happen.”

The other councilmen at the meeting, S. James White and Charles Maschal, who was participating via a conference call, didn’t comment.

Season Planned;

Community Based

The SandPaper was given a copy of the group’s plan at the meeting – plans that showed TD Bank’s desire to sell the complex as soon as possible isn’t the only reason for haste. LBI Theatre Inc. has already mapped out a 2017 season.

Planned main stage shows include “Guys and Dolls,” “West Side Story,” “Les Miserables,” “Mama Mia!” and a “Christmas Spectacular.”

Some of the children’s theater offerings include “Peter Pan,” “Lion King Jr.,” “Little Mermaid, Jr.” and “Aladdin Jr.”

LBI Theatre Inc. plans on offering five different shows each week at the Show Place. One would be called “Disney Night” while others include “Broadway Night,” “Turntable Tuesday,” “Beatles Night” and “Sing Along/LBI Idol Night.” The rotating shows could entice visitors to spend more than one evening at Show Place during their vacation stay.

Administrative, technical and performance internships and apprenticeships will be offered throughout the summer.

A weekly theater summer camp for young children would be established.

The group hopes to make Surflight a year-round entertainment venue. It would, for example, offer three or four weekend musical productions timed to coincide with other Island special events such as Chowderfest and with holidays such as Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving or Mother’s Day. The theater would be used as the main venue for the Lighthouse International Film Festival. Surflight would become the host venue for the fall, winter and spring productions of Our Gang Players, Ocean County’s longest-running community theater troupe. Finally, “Surflight to Go” would be revived, an educational touring theater company of a handful of performers who would travel to grade schools, middle schools and high schools in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York.

There will be theater and more. LBI Theatre Inc.’s plan is to operate the theater as the Surflight Theatre Performing Arts Center, offering all forms of performing arts including musical theater, drama, dance, choral music, jazz, holiday themed programs and cinema.

Cutting Costs;

Low Risk

A common public criticism of Surflight as it stumbled toward bankruptcy was that production costs were too high due to employing members of Actor’s Equity (the union for stage performers). LBI Theatre Inc. is planning on reducing costs with an “ensemble approach” to casting, utilizing non-professional collegiate talent supplemented with Equity “guest actors” when needed.

A full-time staff, however, will be required, including a general manager, artistic director, technical director, operations director, marketing and sales manager and a development coordinator. LBI Theatre Inc. considers the development coordinator to be a very important position.

“It is a fundamental reality,” reads the group’s proposal, “that ticket sales alone cannot sustain a non-profit theater. This is true with the McCarter Theatre, the Paper Mill Theatre, the Cape May theaters, the Ocean City Theatre Company and all other non-profit theaters in the United States. LBI Theatre Inc. has developed a two-part fundraising/development strategy: a targeted high level donor support list of major leadership donors to jump-start the revival of the theatre on acquisition, and a general fundraising campaign to the Long Beach Island community utilizing the campaign records of past years supplemented by new fundraising technology. This effort will involve a staff and trustee development coalition.”

LBI Theatre Inc. has already been busy since it was formed in July 2015.

An interim board has been named and preliminary by-laws adopted. A proposed expansion of the board would include “a cross-section of the community as well as representatives from the Beach Haven and Long Beach Township governments. That expansion would occur upon acquisition of the theater complex.

An IRS tax exemption application has been filed to secure tax-exempt status for LBI Theatre Inc. under Section 501(c)(3) of the Tax Code.

A trademark registration has been filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to secure LBI Theatre Inc.’s ownership and use of the “Surflight Theatre” logo as a registered trademark. An application has also been filed to use the “Surflight Theatre” logo as a trademark in New Jersey, and the group has secured the use of the trade names “Surflight Theatre” and “Surflight Performing Arts Centre” in the Garden State.

A business plan complete with financial projections has been prepared. Employing conservative financial projections the group predicts a positive cash flow over the first three years of operation of $100,000 per year – after the payment of the lease rental and repair/replacement costs.

Regarding those costs, LBI Theatre Inc. engaged Turner Construction Co. – at no cost – to conduct “a thorough and complete inspection and engineering study of the physical plant to assess the nature and extent of repairs/replacements that need to be made to the theater property” to first bring Surflight to an operational level, and to later make long-term improvements. It has been determined that $51,000 will be needed to reopen the complex, while an additional $345,000 in outlays are planned over the subsequent four years. “These repair/replacement costs,” reads the group’s proposal, “are included in the LBI Theatre Inc. budgets and forecasts.”

Work, though, will have to begin soon if the theater is to reopen in time for the 2017 summer season. And all sorts of other tasks will have to be undertaken such as the hiring of a full-time staff, casting and the acquisition of rights – more reasons for LBI Theatre Inc. to be pushing Beach Haven at this time.

The group insists Beach Haven borough and Long Beach Township have little to lose. The terms of the operating lease would be equal to the debt service payments on the bonds the governing bodies would sell to purchase Surflight. If LBI Theatre Inc. was not able to meet the rental payment obligations or its operations fail, the owners could sell the property.

On the other hand, reads the proposal, “The planned transformation of the Surflight Theatre Performing Arts Center will bring an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 visitors to the complex, benefiting the Island, local businesses and the community.”

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