This weekend kicks off the 10th season for Bay Shore's YMCA Boulton Center for the Performing Arts, a small venue tucked away on the South Shore that has been quietly growing in popularity. Chicano rocker Alejandro Escovedo will do the honors Sunday for the first concert of the year.
The vision for the center came from one of its own, Bay Shore native Frank Boulton, and his wife, Karen, who gave the building, a former movie theater, to the Great South Bay YMCA as a gift in 1997 at a time when the town was experiencing an economic downturn.
"I watched this theater, where I saw 'Old Yeller' as a boy, turn into a boarded-up blight on our downtown," says Boulton, who's also owner and chief executive of the Long Island Ducks baseball team. "I thought a center for the performing arts in the middle of our village would be a good use of that building."
The YMCA renovated the former Regent movie theater for a bit less than $3 million, opening in January 2004 with a performance by the Imani Winds. "We were shooting from the hip, hoping to make something stick," said Sue Rassekh, associate executive director of the Great South Bay YMCA. "It was a strange assortment of artists at first."
It took some time for the nonprofit venue to find its identity. Enter center director Michele Rizzo-Berg, who took over the booking eight years ago, bringing in contemporary artists like Richard Marx, Joan Osborne, Colin Hay, Howard Jones and Edwin McCain.
"After The Downtown closed in Farmingdale, we wanted to develop a new home for acts to play on Long Island," says Rizzo-Berg. "Our size limits us sometimes, but we are sort of 'The Little Venue That Could.' We do some amazing things with what we have."
What makes the YMCA Boulton Center stand out are its intimate atmosphere and superior acoustics. The stadium-seating format, which has maximum capacity of 263, gives every patron in the house a clear view, along with a rich, warm sound.
"You can hear someone playing a cello or violin throughout the entire venue without any amplification," Boulton said.
The site has developed a reputation for showcasing an eclectic mix of artists that you normally would have to travel to Manhattan to catch. The management has even cultivated a core group of about 200 people, known as VIP members, who regularly attend multiple performances, trusting the institution's booking instincts.
"Even if it's not an artist I'm familiar with, the venue attracts me unto itself. I can honestly say that I've never been disappointed," says John Riche, 63, of West Islip, who has been a VIP member since the beginning, attending two shows a month. "I enjoy the artists they book, but for me, it's more than that. You feel like family there."
For $100 a year, Boulton's VIP members enjoy discounted tickets, being able to purchase seats before the public without limits, and all service fees waived. "Our VIP members are the most loyal people," says Rizzo-Berg. "They feel as if they are a part of something."
As a result of the YMCA Boulton Center's success, downtown Bay Shore has grown along with it. "It has carried the town," says Joe Virgilio, 47, of Brightwaters, a five-year VIP member. "You see these great new restaurants and bars coming in as well as specialty shops. It has helped Bay Shore rediscover itself."
WHEN | WHERE 7 p.m. Sunday, YMCA Boulton Center for the Performing Arts, 37 W. Main St., Bay Shore
INFO $50, 631-969-1101, boultoncenter.org
OTHER UPCOMING SHOWS
Big Laughs in Bay Shore (comedy) Feb. 1
Buckwheat Zydeco (R&B), March 2
Booker T. Jones (soul/blues), March 8
Joan Osborne Acoustic Duo (folk), March 24
Average White Band (funk/disco) April 27
Stanley Jordan Trio (jazz), May 10
Drum Wars With Carmine & Vinny Appice (rock), June 28