MIDDLETOWN — It rose from the ashes after two fires, was built back up years later after a ceiling collapse, fell on hard economic times and yet The Everett Theatre has survived and prospered.
The venerable Middletown arts facility is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year in a big way, including a cabaret-style show next month and a casino night gala Nov. 4.
The theater, originally called the Masonic Hall and Opera House, first opened its doors at 47 W. Main St. in 1863. According to The Everett’s website, it served as a center for the arts and as a town meeting place until succumbing to a fire in 1918. A new building was quickly reconstructed and was devoted to the new motion picture phenomenon. That structure also went down in flames only three years later.
The current theater was built in 1922 and consists of mainly terra cotta blocks and plaster, rather than wood, in hopes of avoiding another fire.
It was designed by noted theater architects W.H. Hoffman and Paul J. Henon Jr. The Philadelphia architectural firm was known for its theater designs — 100 theaters in total, 46 of them in Philadelphia alone. Back then, The Everett was a place to enjoy new motion pictures or vaudeville stage performances.
As televisions and state-of-the-art movie theaters took away The Everett’s potential audience, it fell on rough economic times. In 1983, a group of citizens formed Associated Community Talents, Inc., a nonprofit organization, to purchase The Everett and restore it. Associated Community Talents evolved into The Everett, Inc., a nonprofit that operates both the theater and in 2006 added The Gibby Center for the Arts, which also includes The Hudson Gallery for original art.
In 1989, The Everett became nationally known as the location for the school production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the Robin Williams film “Dead Poets Society.”
In March of 2008, not long after the audience and cast of an Easter show had cleared out, the roof and ceiling directly in front of the balcony collapsed to the ground.
The community rallied and, through a variety of fundraising efforts, the interior of the theater was restored.
Today, The Everett offers a wide array of musicals, plays, comedians, movies, educational opportunities and summer camps.
Middletown resident Nicolette Fernandez, director of the “Centennial Anniversary Cabaret,” a show set for The Everett Aug. 13, is part of three generations of family members who have volunteered and/or performed at the theater.
“I started performing in summer camps at The Everett when I was 6 years old. My mom would volunteer and stage manage. She kind of had her hand in lots of things. My dad still helps show movies at the theater using the old carbon arc projectors. He’s probably one of the few people that know how they work and know how to fix them and run them right left in the state. I know he’s been trying to impart his wisdom on a few other people. So hopefully, others can keep them going,” she said.
“But I’ve been, in some capacity, doing things with community theater at The Everett basically for the last 34 years.”
Now, Ms. Fernandez has two of her children in the chorus for the upcoming cabaret show that will feature Broadway songs from the 1920s up to today.
Gail Russell is producing the show. She’s been involved in The Everett since 2014 when she acted in a production of “The Music Man.” She and her husband, Jeff, live a half-hour away in Galena, Maryland.
“We would regularly go to the movies there because at that time, that was the only game in town, and The Everett regularly showed second-run movies. We were pretty much regulars there. We had supported the theater when the ceiling fell and that kind of stuff,” she said.
“Jeff was on the board for a while and I do a lot of the set painting. I do backstage stuff. I do tech crew. I’m on stage. I was just in ‘South Pacific.’ So we’ve been very heavily involved since 2014.”
Ms. Fernandez said the venue was her “home away from home” when she was a kid growing up in Middletown.
“Even when I came back from college (in Virginia) in the summers, I would direct summer theater camps. And I still run a little Broadway Babies camp in the summer. It’s only one week. When you have three kids of your own at home, it’s hard to find the time but I try to make time because it still holds a really special place in my heart,” she said.
“We try to come to the movies and see people. You buy the popcorn and have that popcorn machine going and smell the smells and be backstage with the old dressing rooms and there’s nostalgia everywhere you look in the theater. I love how much people put their hearts into it. I love when new people come and start loving what we do there and we’re always looking for new volunteers and new people to join casts and crew and train new people on lights and sound and all of the aspects that we need because it takes a big village to make everything work.”
“The board does an incredibly busy, noble job managing and getting shows together each season. I would be devastated if the theater was no longer around. It’s such a big part of the town.”
“People will say ‘I’ve lived in Middletown all my life and I have never been here,’” Ms. Russell said.
“So we’re really trying to reach out to those people that don’t realize what a treasure that we have right on Main Street.”
One of the ways they get new people to come into the theater is the boost they still get today from being featured in “Dead Poets Society.” Aside from the venue being in the film, the movie also had one of its premieres at The Everett.
“Often somebody wants to specifically sit in the seat that Robin Williams sat in in the movie. Pretty much every time that we do something related with ‘Dead Poets,’ we get people from all over that are just huge ‘Dead Poets Society’ fans, and they come and just want to be in the theater where part of it was filmed. So it’s really a cool connection that we have with it,” Ms. Russell said.
Just last month, The Everett staged a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as an homage to “Dead Poets Society” and they will be showing it again Aug. 6 for its 25th anniversary.
The August performance will be one of the biggest cabarets The Everett has ever done.
Songs will range from “Showboat” and “The Jazz Singer” through the Golden Age of Broadway including “Oklahoma” and “Guys and Dolls,” up to the present with “Hamilton,” “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Six” with the accompaniment of a live band.
Performances will be Aug. 13 at 2 and 7:30 p.m.
“We usually do just a hodgepodge of songs and performances. People say ‘Oh, I’ve got this song. I want to sing it.’ But for this one, we held official auditions. And Gail and I really sat down and we went through the decades from 1920 to 2020. We narrowed it down to about 1,000 song choices. And we picked like three to four songs per decade to include in the production. So 100 years of Broadway in a 100-year-old theater. We thought it was pretty significant,” Ms. Fernandez said.
Tickets can be obtained at EverettTheatre.com.