November 29, 2022

PERFORMING ARTS: “At the Hopewell Theater, we provide a place for emerging and established talent to perform in a world-class theater right in the heart of Hopewell, a place where our patrons and artists feel welcome and well taken care of by our staff who provide real hospitality.” Hopewell Theater executive director Sara Scully is shown in front of the theater. Its upcoming season offers a variety of eclectic entertainment. (Photo by Kendra Thatcher)

By Jean Stratton

“Another opening; Another show!”

This refrain highlights the varied entertainment agenda at the Hopewell Theater at 5 South Greenwood Avenue in Hopewell.

The storied theater has a long and intriguing history, dating to 1880. Originally known as Columbia Hall, it served as a community center with a lyceum-style theater, and hosted lectures, performers, and films on its second floor until 1939. The first floor was used for community groups, the fire department, and Borough council meetings.

In the 1940s and ’50s it became known as the Colonial Playhouse, and underwent an extensive renovation. Throughout the 1950s, it was a movie theater.

A complete change in operation occurred in 1960, when the building was purchased by George Gallup, CEO of the locally-based Gallup Poll Group. It was used to conduct public polling until 1984. At that time, it reverted to its original theatrical purpose. Bob and Julie Thick purchased the building, and further modified the interior to support the Off-Broadstreet Theatre, a dessert theater featuring live stage productions and children’s shows.

Today’s World

In 2015, the building was sold to new owners including Mitchel Skolnick. Once again, it was renovated, undergoing substantial changes. The ceiling was raised, a balcony added, and seating expanded to accommodate 188 people. In addition, a state-of-the-art sound and light system was installed, as well as a new kitchen.

It has become very much a part of today’s world: a live, updated performance stage; and indie cinema showcase; an entertainment center with interactive Q&A conversations; and a dine-in Supper Club as well as small plate options and a new concession stand.

Executive Director Sara Scully has been very much a part of the evolution of the new Hopewell Theater. Formerly, she was the founder and director of the ACME Screening Room in Lambertville, which focused on indie cinema programming. She had also previously worked in documentary films in New York.

She and Skolnick have become partners in the theater production company for Hopewell Theater, and Scully created a business plan for the new operation.

“This involved a redesign and renovation of the theater, marketing, and brand,” says Scully. “I created the brand and vision for the theater, the business plan, and executed the realization of that plan. I had a vision for the space and what it would look like. This included mixed seating, with fixed theater seating, banquette seating in the balcony, and also separate tables.”

The dining options have also been expanded, she points out. “We have our special occasion Supper Club with a served two-course dinner before the show and small plates and desserts at the concessions stand, as well as traditional movie favorites, such as popcorn, candy, and soft drinks.”

More Variety

The blend of entertainment, with much more variety, has been very popular, she adds. When she and Skolnick took over, they emphasized the importance of live music, updated state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems, and a new projector and sound system for indie cinema.

“We now offer a selectively eclectic range of shows including live music, stand-up comedy, live theater shows, and indie films. Some programs feature interactive Q & A conversations with audiences and performers. We are now offering programs weekly during the fall and spring seasons with pop-ups in the winter and summer. Days vary depending on the scheduling. Patrons can check our website for showtimes.”

Scully is very enthusiastic about the lineup of performances for the new season. “The fall season offers a full slate of great programs from a wide variety of artists and genres — a selectively eclectic mix — with something for everyone,” she says.

“On October 6th, we are showing ‘The Price of Silence: Film + Dessert & Discussion.’ Watch The Forgotten Story of New Jersey’s Enslaved People, followed by dessert and a panel discussion with local filmmaker Ridgeley Hutchinson, and local co-authors Beverly Mills and Elaine Buck, Isabela Morales, Kristan Langford, and international singer-songwriter Danielia Cotton.”

The comedy show “Progressively Funny Starring Hohn Fugelsang & Friends” is set for October 8, and Somebody’s Daughter, a play written and performed by Zara Phillips with live music by Richard Thompson, will be presented on October 21.

The Halloween Fright Fest, featuring classic horror films for the entire family, begins October 26 and continues on October 27, 29, and 30.

Holiday Films

“And also,” adds Scully, “we have a range of great live music shows in December to celebrate the holidays. Hopewell native Danielia Cotton will return with a ‘Home for the Holidays’ show.

“Our classic holiday family films for Halloween and Christmas are favorites with the kids, and our live music is extremely popular with all our patrons.”

Scully is pleased that audiences include not only people from Hopewell, Princeton, and Mercer County but also from all across the New Jersey area. She reports that patrons have returned enthusiastically since the height of COVID-19, when the theater was closed.

“Venues were the first to close and the last to reopen after COVID hit,” says Scully. “They are all struggling financially. We, Hopewell Theater, successfully helped advocate for federal and state relief funding alongside dozens of other venues. Without that funding, many venues would have closed.”

“Hopewell Theater survived the pandemic by the grace of my business partner Mitchel Skolnick, who refused to give up on the theater,” she continues. “Mitchel held out hope of a rebound from our being forced to close, and supported our advocacy efforts. His support, along with relief funding, which we advocated for, from the state of New Jersey in the Community Stage Grant and federal money through the SVOG, kept us and dozens of other New Jersey venues alive.

“We are now advocating with Art Pride New Jersey for another boost of State of New Jersey aid for the arts from the state’s pot of American Rescue Plan funds (ARP). We are asking the N.J. Legislature to pass bill S2800, which will make ARP funds available to arts organizations and venues like ours to help us thrive. So many are still struggling financially.”

Together Again

Now that the audiences are returning, Scully shares in their pleasure of being able to come together again.

“Audiences have come back to enjoy the theater, and that has been so encouraging,” she says. “Our patrons have reported being delighted to be out at live events again, and comfortable at our shows. Also, our staff has taken precautions, and we have followed the guidelines and made sure our audiences feel safe. Planning is everything, and that is what we do. Plan ahead, make sure we are prepared, and if not, be flexible enough to improve our systems if they need it.”

Information regarding ticket prices and specific performance scheduling is available on the Hopewell Theater website at hopewelltheater.com. In addition to single ticket purchases, membership packages are offered, featuring special benefits, including free movie tickets, 10 percent discounts on concession snacks, free popcorn, and advance notice on upcoming events.

“We are very encouraged,” says Scully, “and we look forward to continuing to bring excellent entertainment — including great films, great music, and great shows — to our audiences. This is a special place, and we want to share it with everyone.”

For further information, call (609) 466-1964.

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