Surflight Theatre – Behind the Curtain

By LARRY CHALK | Apr 26, 2017

Now that it looks like Surflight Theatre will really be back, I would like to shed a little light on some of the behind-the-scenes action that occurred before the theater’s bankruptcy.

I served on the board of directors of Surflight Theatre during the terrible, heart-wrenching months before it closed, and have also performed in main stage and children’s theater shows there. If it was a difficult time for the theater-going public, it was even tougher on the board. We put in hours of meetings, donated our own money and suffered unending frustration. Every time we thought we had a viable solution, something unfortunate would happen. I write this not to blame anyone or to make excuses, but to clarify the process that ended with bankruptcy and the eventual resurrection of the theater under Steve Steiner.

The seeds of the shutdown were sown many years ago, when the theater and ice cream parlor were sold. The amount of debt that was incurred ensured that the theater had the financial chance of survival equivalent to a swimmer wearing a lead vest. It wasn’t a question of if, but of when. Only Steve Steiner’s ability to shift funds around and borrow short-term money from local patrons allowed the theater to survive as long as it did.

After Steve’s departure, Surflight went from the Steiner era to the New York era. The New York City producers, who initially volunteered their time, brought in big-name entertainers. Their stated objective was instead of having people come to LBI and go to the theater, people would come because of the theater. Surflight was to be transformed into a destination theater.

The female version of  “The Odd Couple,” with Cindy Williams (Shirley of “Laverne & Shirley”) and Joanne Worley (“Laugh-In”), racked up the highest box office sales ever up to that time. What delightful ladies! Judd Hirsch also did a wonderful job. Unfortunately, having roughly 450 seats, the theater could not sell enough tickets to support the salaries of the Equity actors, rented costumes, lights, sound system and casting. Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, with almost three times the number of seats, almost went under trying to do the same thing. 

The first NYC wave at Surflight moved on and another producer was introduced. “Les Miserables” was a wonderful show whose run was extended by popular demand. Again, higher-paid Equity actors, rented costumes and technical support were used. Once again, it was proven that Surflight could produce top-quality shows but couldn’t make enough money doing it. Ticket sales do not come close to supporting a regional theater.

Surveys had been done to find out what people wanted to see and how much they wanted to pay. It had always been the policy of the theater to introduce something new for the younger crowd but have the old standbys for those who wanted tried and true wholesome entertainment. It was very frustrating to hear people, when we went with “Oklahoma!” or “South Pacific,” say, “Oh, I’ve already seen that!”

I am well aware of how financially difficult it can be to take a family of four to a show or to be able to go to a show while living on a pension. But complaints that ticket prices were too high were frustrating, since ticket sales hardly paid for a third of the expense of mounting a show. Those prices would barely pay for parking in New York City.

It got harder and harder to meet payroll. The board frequently put up their own money to try to save the theater, but it was never enough. The bank had extended loans, but the impacts of a fire and Superstorm Sandy were the final straw. It seemed like the perfect storm. 

With great sadness, the board met to decide what path to take. It was patently obvious that we had little choice. With heavy hearts, we put the theater into bankruptcy, knowing full well that it might never come out. Auctions and other private deals never came to fruition. We had expected more support from the town of Beach Haven, which never really materialized. The future was bleak.

Finally, Steve Steiner has put together the current financial arrangement to reopen the theater. The answer was someone with the money and vision to restore the Surflight campus and allow it to operate as a regional theater again. So, what is to be learned from the past years?

First, the model for operating Surflight is not one of a destination theater. As much work as possible has to be done in-house. Casting that brings us talented amateur actors needs to be done by the theater staff. You may have noted from previous seasons that many of the interns are probably going to have a major role in one of the shows and appear as various characters in all the others.

Second, children’s theater has to be cast with these talented amateurs, for at least the lead roles. At one point, children’s theater had sunk to the level of being cast with all kids. Many were very talented, but not at the level the public had come to expect.

Third, costumes have to be made at the theater. Sure, it takes a while to bring the inventory up, but it saves a lot of money. There are costumes available for the first few shows of the new season.

Fourth, The Show Place Ice Cream Parlour has to be run on a more business-like level.  Artistic people are wonderful for what they can do, but many times running a small business isn’t one of them.

Whatever has happened in the past is now water under the bridge. We have a treasure on LBI that we now have another chance to support. As an economic driver, Surflight helps bring people to the Island both during the day and at night, fills restaurants and gets people to shop locally. Additionally, it provides wonderful live entertainment to children and adults, provides a venue for other organizations, serves as a town meeting place, and educates young actors and technicians. I am convinced that returning to the summer stock model will accomplish great things. I have every confidence that Steve Steiner, with his wife, Gail, can pull this off. I hope that you join me in wishing them the best of luck. Buy your tickets now and I’ll see you at Surflight!

Larry Chalk lives in Fort Myers, Fla., and Haven Beach.








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