Bellport's Gateway Theater's 75th season opened with "Rock of Ages," a show that, according to executive artistic director Paul Allan, "has a little something for everyone." Credit: Elizabeth Sagarin; Photo Credit: Morgan Campbell, Max Heine

Well before he won an Oscar for the 1983 film “Tender Mercies” and an Emmy for the AMC series “Broken Trail” in 2007, Robert Duvall was finding his theatrical roots in Bellport.

The renowned actor — who also starred in “The Godfather” on screen and “American Buffalo” on Broadway — appeared in nearly 20 shows at The Gateway, which just kicked off its 75th season with the '80s hair band musical “Rock of Ages” (it runs through June 2.)

He’s one of many well-known names that have graced that stage over the past seven-plus decades, and proof that even from its the early days, Gateway's mission was to do good theater, says executive artistic director Paul Allan. The first show was William Shakespeare's “The Taming of the Shrew,” followed by dramas like Arthur Miller's “The Crucible” and William Inge's “Picnic” (both starring Duvall).

Robert Duvall, seated, rehearses “The Tender Trap” with his fellow...

Robert Duvall, seated, rehearses “The Tender Trap” with his fellow cast members at The Gateway in Bellport in 1956. Credit: Newsday/Max Heine

“There was hardly anything on the Island at all,” says Allan, whose family has run the theater since 1950. His grandfather, Harry Pomeran, bought the 70-acre farm in 1941, and with his wife, Libby, turned it into a summer resort for Christian Scientists. Their three children — Sally, David and Ruth (Paul’s mother) — worked the property by tending the garden, waiting tables, even milking the family cow Daisy. In the best “let’s-put-on-a-show” philosophy, the kids started entertaining guests with songs and skits, attracting enough attention from the locals to convince Pomeran there might be a profit in charging for the performances.

Daisy was evicted from the barn in 1950, making way for “Shrew,” which was a huge success. Over the next few years, haylofts became balconies, stalls became dressing rooms, a stage was constructed and the Gateway Playhouse was born.

THE STARS SHINE IN BELLPORT

Sally Struthers has starred in four Gateway shows, including last...

Sally Struthers has starred in four Gateway shows, including last year's "Clue," in which she played Mrs. Peacock. Credit: Morgan Campbell

Along with Duvall, Gene Hackman, Ken Howard, Sally Struthers and Tony nominee Elizabeth Stanley ("Jagged Little Pill") are other major stars who have played Gateway. Most, like Hackman, who did three shows there in 1957, and Stanley were just starting their careers when they played the Bellport stage.

“As a young actor, sometimes you just want to play certain roles,” said Stanley, in a recent phone interview reflecting on about her Gateway debut as Amneris in “Aida” in 2005. “It was one of my dream roles, so it was exciting to be able to do it at Gateway.”

Plus there was the opportunity to escape from the city, she says: “It’s the great thing about being an actor. You can go away to do a job.”

A Midwesterner with few summer-stock theaters in Iowa and Illinois where she grew up, Stanley embraces what she learned at regional theaters like Gateway. “It was a great education,” she says. “You learned by doing.” Stanley, who also had roles in “Sugar” and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” in Bellport, describes Gateway as “a really fun place to spend the summer.” And the actress says she loves the history. There’s something, she says, about “rehearsing in a space that used to be a chicken coop.”

Allan has fond memories of Sally Struthers, who made her Gateway debut in the Dolly Parton musical “9 to 5” in 2012. “She’s pretty revered in our family,’’ says Allan. “My grandparents grew up with ‘All in the Family.’ ” The first time he met her, Allan says he was enchanted by her. “I didn’t expect her to be that funny in real life,” he adds. “Anything goes with her, she’s a free spirit.”

Struthers calls her time at Gateway “magical … it’s like you’ve gone off to the most fancy camp in the world,” she says, remembering the evening campfires, the communal kitchen and the deer at the back of the property. “It makes me feel so youthful when I’m there,” says Struthers, who returned to Gateway in “Nice Work If You Can Get It” (2015), “Anything Goes” (2016) and last year’s “Clue.”

“It’s a “huge effort to put on a musical and they do it beautifully,” said Struthers in a phone interview from Los Angeles. But, she notes, “the reason the shows turn out to be such happy experiences for the audiences is because the actors are so happy … they’re not finding it work, they’re finding it play.”

Allan recalls Struthers staying on the grounds while performing at Gateway, coming downstairs in her bathrobe to make coffee in the morning. And that fits in with the vibe at Gateway, where it truly is all in the family. Allan’s earliest memories involve working to support the business, selling candy at intermission when he was 7, painting scenery as he got older.

He was occasionally called on to perform (“The Sound of Music,” young Patrick in “Mame”) but “the stage wasn’t where I belonged.” Ultimately, he says his aspirations led him to the technical side of the operation, working with his mother and sister until their deaths.

HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS AS A NONPROFIT

Woody Scott White stars in "Rock of Ages," Gateway's first...

Woody Scott White stars in "Rock of Ages," Gateway's first show of its 75th season. The '80s hair band musical runs through June 2. Credit: Elizabeth Sagarin

While the kindred feeling persists to this day at Gateway (cast members generally live in the former hotel), Allan says there came a point when it became necessary to gravitate away from the perception of operating as a family business. After many years functioning as a commercial theater, says Allan, “it got hard to pay the bills,” and the Gateway turned nonprofit in 2011, even though Allan admits he knew very little about that world. “All I knew about nonprofits,” he says, “was that people gave you money.”

That didn’t work out so well at first, he admits, noting donations came in slowly. But gradually, he says, it started to make sense. The organization restructured, changing the name from Gateway Playhouse to simply The Gateway, officially Gateway Performing Arts Center of Suffolk County.

There were some rough years during the pandemic. “It was a huge challenge,” says Allan, thinking back to “Newsies,” Gateway's first post-pandemic production in August 2021. The show played to about 10% capacity, in part because of vaccine requirements that prohibited anyone younger than 18 from attending. “It was almost two years of very small audiences,” says Allan, saying the theater got by thanks to a grant designed to help businesses stay open. “We just made it,” he says, “it was tight.”

BACK TO THE FUTURE

Plans are in the works to created a more modern...

Plans are in the works to created a more modern entrance and lobby for The Gateway. Credit: Elizabeth Sagarin

Now, though, the theater is looking to the future. A grant from Suffolk County, nearly $1.5 million, will be used to construct a modern entrance and lobby. “We’re looking to up our curb appeal,” he says. “We’ve been banking for years on our charm, our country feel, but the new generation doesn’t quite understand that. People want to go to a shiny new place,” he says, noting that it’s part of the plan to attract younger audiences.

“It’s got to look pretty, there’s got to be a place to get a drink, hang out. They want to feel like they’re someplace cool.”

Ground will be broken later this year on the project, says Allan, talking about plans for a more modern façade, new glass doors, a new bar, modernized restrooms and parking areas.

Another half-million grant from a private foundation and upcoming fundraising efforts will be used for things “we didn’t realize we needed,” he says, including new septic and electrical systems, fire retardants and the like. The goal is to have it all completed by 2026, says Allan.

When it’s finished, he says, “Gateway will be more of a destination … our goal is not to wipe away the history of the barn, but to embrace it.”

SHOWS TO SPARKLE FOR GATEWAY'S DIAMOND ANNIVERSARY

Selecting a season is rough for any theater, but when you’re marking a 75-year milestone, it becomes even more of a challenge.

“We had a lot of ideas for our anniversary season,” says Paul Allan, executive artistic director of Gateway, such as picking something from every genre, or every decade, or our greatest hits. In the end, he says, “I wanted to do a season that was just fun. I wanted every show to feel like a good time.”

The diamond anniversary season opened with “Rock of Ages” running through June 2. “It's one of the best ‘80s musicals there is,” says Allan. Other shows include “Beautiful — The Carole King Musical” (Aug. 9-Sept. 8), “White Christmas” (Nov. 29-Dec. 29) and “The Addams Family” (March 14-April 13). Allan is especially excited about “Escape to Margaritaville,” which runs from June 21-July 21.

“It’s not an amazing piece of theater,” he says, but it’s a show “the community can embrace.” And, he adds, “Jimmy Buffett is pretty popular around here.”

For more info, call 631-286-1133 or visit thegateway.org.

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