Paul Allan, the owner and last family member to run The Gateway theater in Bellport, recently received an email from Luciana Pedraza, an Argentine actress and director who is married to Academy Award-winning actor Robert Duvall.
According to Pedraza’s email, Duvall wanted to see copies of Playbill from his long-ago years as a leading man on stage at The Gateway, Allan said. A few years before Duvall’s big-screen debut as Boo Radley in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” he’d trod The Gateway’s boards for five seasons of summer stock in the 1950s.
“He and my mom, Ruth Vickers — her stage name — did so many shows together in the early years of Gateway Playhouse,” Allan said. Ruth Pomeran Allan (Allan’s mom’s real name) had spoken often of her work with Duvall, whom she called by his family nickname, “Bodge.”
Duvall played roles in “The Crucible” and 17 other plays and eventually coaxed New York theater buddies Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman to audition for the Bellport theater. Hackman won a role (as a policeman alongside Duvall in The Gateway’s 1957 production of “Witness for the Prosecution”). Hoffman — years before his breakthrough in 1967’s “The Graduate” — unsuccessfully auditioned for a Gateway show but stayed around to hang out with Duvall.
“My mom said he had no talent,” Allan said, laughing at his mother’s premature criticism of Hoffman, who has been nominated for a best actor Oscar seven times and has won twice.
Allan’s collection of anecdotes about now-famous actors comes from his role in the family business at The Gateway. Such memories can be bittersweet now that Allan’s mother, father Stanley, and sister Robin Joy, who all acted or ran The Gateway during its 66 years in business, are deceased. Now, Allan alone is steering the Island’s oldest professional regional theater, often through dire straits.
At The Gateway, “Our ticket prices used to support the business when we were doing 85 to 90 percent average through the ’90s,” he said. “Now we’re 65 percent filled; that’s a huge difference in money.” He talks with other professional venues, such as John W. Engeman Theater at Northport and Tilles Center in Brookville, to avoid getting in each other’s way. “We’re finding it’s important to talk amongst ourselves,” he said of the Island’s professional regional theater community, which employs performers who are members of the Actors’ Equity union.
As a result of such negotiations, The Gateway will be presenting the much-coveted Broadway musical “Mamma Mia!” this year.
“The show must go on” is a theater cliche but also a tradition for Allan, who is 56 and has been running The Gateway since his 20s. Originally a summer stock company but a year-round theater since the 1970s, The Gateway offers training and early credit for Broadway and Hollywood hopefuls, and a haven for veteran professionals. Its demise, theater experts say, would be a loss to theater lovers who count on the affordability and proximity of its Broadway-quality shows.
Regional venues like The Gateway “keep theater both relevant and important throughout our country,” said Betsy King Militello, executive director of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre in Manhattan. “Theater isn’t something done far away; it’s part of your life growing up, part of communication, part of shared experience,” she said. “And that shared experience builds a sense of community, a place where all are welcome, where ideas can be shared — not only through the spoken word, but also through song and dance.”
Gail Slotnick, 58, of Plainview, a special projects coordinator for the Village of Westbury who volunteers for Star Playhouse at the Suffolk Y Jewish Community Center in Commack, is a fan of The Gateway. Its production of “Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical,” presented at Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts, “blew me away,” Slotnick said. She was impressed by the quality of the sets and the imaginative staging. “The costumes were phenomenal, and then we read in the Playbill that these were the Tony-winning costumes from the Broadway show,” Slotnick said.
Another fan is Ruby Lewis, 31, of Manhattan, who made her Broadway debut in May as The Leading Lady in Cirque du Soleil’s “Paramour.”
Five summers ago in a Gateway production, Lewis played Elle Woods, the female lead in “Legally Blonde.” She said, “Gateway was a very safe place for me to do some of my best work. The caliber of the shows, the performers I shared the stage with, was the perfect training ground for Broadway. It would be such a disservice to future Broadway performers to be without such a wonderful place to hone their craft.”
In another attempt to fill the house and improve the bottom line, Allan is casting marquee names from TV and Broadway. “All in the Family” star Sally Struthers and Andrea McArdle, Broadway’s original “Annie,” now grown into mature roles, starred in this past summer’s “Anything Goes.”
In a phone interview from Los Angeles, Struthers said one of the joys of playing The Gateway is working with Paul Allan. “His wholesomeness and his dearness remind me of a Mouseketeer,” Struthers, 69, said. Struthers, who has been acting in professional theater for 25 years and appears in The Gateway co-productions with the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine, compares the Bellport campus to “summer camp.”
“You rehearse all day long and in the evening you have bonfires out back and cook together,” Struthers said. She expects to return to the Gateway stage this summer.
Allan has also offered more commercial fare, such as the holiday ice show presented at the Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts at the end of last year. (The Gateway has a five-year contract to produce musicals at the theater.) He even rents out The Gateway’s portable ice-maker at $8,000 to $10,000 a pop.
Five years ago, Allan made the major decision to turn the commercial theater into a nonprofit corporation. “It’s been a tough process,” he said. “Since we come from a background of being commercial theater, the public didn’t know we needed funding.” Allan is hiring a grants writer to seek additional funding for The Performing Arts Center of Suffolk County, doing business as The Gateway, which provides the shows. (The Allan family still owns the playhouse building.)
“We had to change to survive,” said Allan, who is also the Performing Arts Center’s executive artistic director.
Allan’s rapport with actors and his grasp of theatrical tradition come from being surrounded since birth by show folk. His mother and her sister Sally Pomeran Harris and brother David Pomeran, founded The Gateway playhouse in 1950 on a 70-acre farm owned by their parents, Harry and Libby Pomeran, who had originally envisioned the property as a resort hotel for fellow Christian Scientists. But the stage-struck kids convinced their parents to open and even invest and help run a playhouse on the straw-hat circuit, so named for its rural summer stock locations. The theater ran on a three-month summer schedule, and plays were performed in the barn until the Main Stage Theater opened in 1962.
It was home to Paul Allan, who followed in his mother’s footsteps, making his acting debut at age 9 as Kurt in “The Sound of Music.” Eventually, he left the footlights and took up stage carpentry, electrical work and sound engineering. After his mother embarked on a new career as a Christian Science practitioner and lecturer and his father became a Brookhaven deputy supervisor and town clerk, Allan and his sister began running the family business.
That left little time for Allan to socialize. “While all of my friends were getting married, I was married to the theater,” he said. At age 42, however, he took his marriage vows inside the Gateway Playhouse. He and his wife, Annmarie, who is in her 40s, have two children, Luke, 12 and Alexa, 9. Allan said he exposes his children to as much theater as he can, in hopes that there might be enough greasepaint in their systems to continue the family tradition.
“I feel a lot of responsibility on a lot of levels,” he said, “to my family to keep alive the world they created, to employees who work here, to the community that comes to see the shows and to the new actors who come through here.”