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The Oldest Established Permanent Community Theater on Long Island

Oh, the thinks community theaters can think! Here's the story of a Long Island production of Seussical.

(Logo design by Ginny Pape)
"You're going WHERE to see a community theater production of Seussical?" my friends exclaimed. So I repeated, "The James Street Players, affiliated with the United Methodist Church in Babylon, New York," adding: "A theater's a theater, no matter how small. So let's have a little R-E-S-P-E-C-K."

After all, James Street isn't a fly-by-night operation. This month, they'll celebrate the 38th anniversary of that day when Rev. Jack Savage, Barbara and Lee Atchison, Charles and Sue Neal, and eight others met to see if they could stage a play. They landed on something small and safe: One Foot in Heaven, about a Methodist minister and his family. The church gave $50, and a very pregnant Sue Neal directed actors who would also serve as scene builders, painters, ticket sellers, prop people, and costumers.

The show went so well that the participants established a non-profit organization. Soon came the inevitable variety show, Capers through the Calendar, in which the cast sang "Steam Heat" for January and "April Showers" for you-know-which month. But things started looking up in 1968 with the production of a real musical, Brigadoon. The fresnels that had been borrowed were now purchased, and by 1970 the theater boasted, according to Sue Neal, "the most sophisticated lighting system of any group on the Island."

Old-timers fondly recall that day in 1971 when the costumed cast rode the LIRR train from Lindenhurst to Babylon to trumpet the production of Hello, Dolly! This was followed by a parade through the streets of Babylon, with Dolly riding in a horse-drawn conveyance. The cast then performed a few numbers and sold tickets -- enough that the show went clean two weeks before the first performance. But not every decision worked out brilliantly. "Wait Until Dark was an artistic success," insists Neal, "because both of the people who saw it liked it." In 1972, the troupe tried to run a show for three weekends instead of two but found that it attracted the same number of attendees. After a needed equipment purchase, the organization couldn't afford a spring show. So on came the bake sales, of course -- and, more potently, the JSP Ensemble, which performed at various country clubs, dinners, and libraries. Summer musicals featuring kids became great money-makers, too, what with everyone's relatives wanting to see their little darlings take the stage.

Says Sue Neal, "We have presented well over 100 shows -- more than 60 of them musicals -- as well as 37 summer shows, religious dramas, and variety shows. We have many members who have been with us for 20 to 30 years, and a large group of third generation JSP'ers who make us very proud and will ensure the future of the group." She cites those who have gone on, ranging from Ralph Macchio (Anything Goes, 1976), who became "The Karate Kid," to Jim Borstelmann (Carousel, 1978), who's been featured in such Broadway shows as The Producers, to Bob Dorian, the longtime host of American Movie Classics, who was Henry Higgins in JSP's My Fair Lady.

Of course, the gods of comedy and tragedy have delivered some problems. JSP lifers recall when Barbara Atchison's hoop-skirt popped and she had to hold it up for the rest of the scene in The King and I; when Charlie Neal's Sir Evelyn Oakleigh entered in his boxer shorts for the "hot pants" scene in Anything Goes but was one scene too early (well, anything goes in that show); when a cast member was drinking a red fruit drink over a doll dressed in a white gown on Marty Ayrovainen's beloved prop table. And let's not forget the production of Brigadoon where Harry Beaton was such a hunk that when his "dead" body was carried off, some of the women copped a feel as he went by.

Many still talk about the South Pacific in which the young woman playing Bloody Mary had a panic attack before the show, refused to go on, and a chorus girl had to sub with script in hand. Thom Rosati recalled, "We have a very limited backstage where you can only enter from one side. Any entrance from the other side means that, for a few scenes, people will be stuck in what's little more than a closet. So all those GI's and nurses were crammed in in advance and didn't know about the panic attack. I'll never forget their faces when they suddenly heard an unfamiliar voice coming out with Bloody Mary's lines."

But as I entered the unglamorous cinderblock church hall (and saw the inevitable audience members holding bouquets that they'd later give to their favorite performers), I heard about a much more pressing problem. Said Nancy Rosati (Thom's wife), "12-year-old Ava Bonavita -- JoJo -- began having abdominal pains on Thursday, so her parents took her to the ER. Her pain subsided and she was sent home. Even though she had an understudy, she was not about to miss a performance, especially with her dad playing Horton. So she started off Friday night with some pain, which got worse as the night wore on -- but I'm telling you, no one in the audience had a clue. She kept marching, sang every song, and never broke character. At the finale, she didn't sing 'Green Eggs & Ham' but took her bow and left the stage. I ran into the dressing room to find her doubled over, sobbing, while her mom got ready to take her to the hospital. She spent Friday night there but was sent home on Saturday morning after being diagnosed with chronic appendicitis. But she was in no immediate danger; the physicians said she could do the shows if she felt up to it."

John Bonavita in Seussical
(Photo courtesy of the James Street Players)
She sure was. Her sensational performance made me think that I must have been misinformed as to which kid was hurting. What a voice! What a presence! What a future! And how moving it was at the end of the show to see her father John hug her -- gingerly, of course. How nice, too, to see a father and daughter working together. Best of all, they're peers at James Street -- a situation that can only happen in theater. Even those who coach their kids in sports have power over them.

And Thom Rosati's production? Damn good. All right, it wasn't "better than Broadway," as community theater members and their audiences always swear of their shows. Some of the 58-member cast didn't belong on a stage that isn't small enough to be called postage-stamp but could accurately be called a first-day commemorative. But, oh, those 58 costumes made by Debbie Cascio! And who else, you ask? That's it: Debbie Cascio. How's that for a hero?

Yes, there were times when the curtain came forward towards the middle to end a scene, and someone was left out in front of it. There was the frequent snap, crackle, and pop of microphones, plus a loud thump when an actor slammed his hand to his heart on the word "love" and hit his body mike. Then there was the microphone that went off and on, so we could only hear every other note of the song. Too bad, for as my theater companion Ronni Krasnow pointed out, the soloists here were definitely many cuts above those found at other community theaters. And Ann Kubik's 22-piece orchestra was easily the best I've ever heard at a community theater in all my decades of attending.

So what, you say; there are plenty of great professional musicians who are willing to schlep out to Long Island if the price is right. But here's the thing: Even the musicians don't get paid at James Street. They're mostly teachers, police officers, custodians, nurses, social workers, students, park rangers -- and there are also a few pros, each of whom wants to do a mitzvah. Said Nancy Rosati, "I believe that because we're 100% volunteers, we get more and better work from our members. If we paid them a token amount, as many semi-professional theater companies do, I don't think we'd get the same quality of dedication. All these people donate three months minimum to each production because they love what they do and the friendships that they've made.

"When we were doing The King and I in 1990," Rosati continued, "director Sue Neal said that the Siamese women and children dropped to their knees hundreds of times per day, so we had to do it in a graceful manner -- not the clunky, awkward way we had been doing it. So we spent quite a bit of time learning how to go down to the floor in one graceful move and up again equally as gracefully. Maybe it was a little thing and maybe no one in the audience noticed, but it gave all of us a better sense of who our characters were. A year later, I saw the same show at a local theater that was supposedly more professional than we but I noticed the wives struggling to get down on their knees and back up again."

I thought of that when JoJo reunited with his Whoville folks and the chorus sang, "Anything's possible." Yes, the James Street Players and Ava Bonavita had just proved that.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]