Kevin O'Neill was still contemplating the purchase of the old Northport Theater when a morning phone call removed the last inklings of uncertainty.
It was May 15, 2006, and the caller had news about John William Engeman, his wife Patti's brother. The husband and father of two had been killed while on active military duty in Iraq. He was 45.
"There's a catalyst that puts the extra horsepower behind something to make it go and I felt, right there and then, as clear as I'm sitting now, when we got that call," O'Neill said as recalled his beloved brother-in-law, who grew up in East Northport with his six siblings. "It was crushing, but I said, 'This is a local guy. This is a guy who'd have a beer down on Main Street in Northport. It would be cool to put his name on the marquee, as a tribute to him for a long time to come.' "
That may have been one of the easiest decisions in the history of the 1932 playhouse, which was long ago called The Northport Theater and had been mired in drama since its earliest days on Northport's Main Street: a fire, vandalism, threat of demolition, renovations, a succession of sales. It now thrives as the John W. Engeman Theater, a modern 400-seat Equity playhouse that has been painstakingly updated and redesigned.
There are six shows as part of the Main Stage season and four Children's Theater productions, in addition to special event performances and educational repertory theater shows that schools incorporate into their curricula. Musicals and holiday shows are popular and often sell out, according to theater officials.
The O'Neills, who live in Lloyd Harbor, purchased the theater and sank about $3.7 million into renovations, which included excavating and tunneling the basement, installing dressing rooms and showers for performers and adding a stage, state-of-the-art lighting and sound and stadium seating.
The theater, reopened in 2007, retains six original oil paintings and four vintage stained-glass lights. But its history goes back even further than the 1920s era that inspired the Art Deco style filtering through the current incarnation.
A long history
The original Northport Theater was built in 1912 by Carlton Brewster, who later became Islip Town supervisor. In 1914, he sold it to Northport widow Jessie Finch Barker. The theater hosted vaudeville acts and was used as a community center for recitals, commencements and roller-skating (the seats were removable). In 1918, the theater entertained soldiers training to become World War I pilots at Brindley Field.
Red Cross meetings and benefits were held there during the war as well, according to a newspaper account. But the theater's main purpose was to showcase silent films of the era. The 1915 D.W. Griffith classic "Birth of a Nation" was shown there, and during a screening of a Harry Houdini film, the world-renowned escape artist and magician visited the theater.
Despite her success, in 1926 Barker sold the theater, whereupon it languished, opening only on weekends until 1930. That's when local businessman Carl Wilkowitz took control of it and announced plans to install audio equipment for "talkies." But disaster struck two years later. In April 1932, the theater and its next-door neighbor, the Mitchell-Conklin Garage, which was also a Chevrolet dealership, caught fire. The theater burned to the ground.
"They thought possibly improperly stored gasoline at the gas station may have caused the fire," said Steven King, president of the Northport Historical Society and village historian.
Undaunted, Wilkowitz rebuilt the theater as a movie house exclusively. "There was no live entertainment; that was a significant change," noted King. Another change: the building was fireproofed. The 754-seat theater with the latest RCA audio equipment opened to much fanfare on Nov. 23, 1932, with the screening of "Sherlock Holmes."
In 1950 the venue, by then owned by a theater chain, got a sorely needed $100,000 face-lift. That June, the now fully air-conditioned facility reopened with new upholstered chairs, carpeting, drapes and wall tapestries.
"When you reached high school, couples generally sat upstairs in the balcony," Katherine Smyth Duffy recalled in a file note at the Northport Historical Society. "Lots of us tried our first cigarette and had our first kiss here. A big date was a double feature and a walk down Main Street for a soda at the Sweet Shop afterward."
But the one-screen theater business began flailing and was sold in September 1997 to developer Michael Petracca, who also owned a single-screen theater in Lindenhurst. In October, vandals damaged the Northport theater and caused it to flood. Petracca reopened it two years later but abruptly closed it in January 2003 after battling with Lindenhurst officials about his theater there.
His threat to file for a demolition permit alarmed some Northport residents and others, who scrambled to form the nonprofit Northport Performing Arts Center with the aim of raising money to purchase and then run the theater as a Broadway-caliber venue. They were well on their way until a dramatic turn of events in May 2005 ended with Petracca selling the theater to local landlord Dennis Tannenbaum.
Up to the present
Enter O'Neill, a retired Wall Street bond trader and significant shareholder in the online theatrical ticket site Theatermania.com.
Tannenbaum "wanted to do the right thing for the community and preserve this place but was finding it difficult," O'Neill said. To convert the theater for live performances, the entire interior needed extensive -- and expensive -- renovations. After discussions with theater pro Richard Dolce, whose mother, Pat Zaback, founded BroadHollow Theatre Company, O'Neill sealed the deal. Dolce is now O'Neill's partner and Engeman's producing artistic director.
Performers belong to the Actors Equity union and ensure the quality of the shows is on par with Broadway. (The two other Equity theaters on Long Island are the Gateway Playhouse in Bellport and the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor.) Tickets are half the cost of a Broadway show and marketed to Long Islanders seeking entertainment and convenience -- and a bit of history.
"Old buildings bring character to a community," said Heather Johnson, director of the Northport Historical Society, which is across the street from the theater. "They are also reminders of the past."
MUSICAL THEATER CLASSES FOR KIDS
Those who get the acting bug can join the theater's Studio of the Performing Arts, offering musical theater classes for children aged 4-17 and camp programs for ages 7-17. The summer camp offers full- and part-time sessions from June 30-Aug. 29 (enrollment is still available for session III). There are fall acting classes, one of which culminates in a production on Jan. 10 and 11 of "Les Misérables." Enrollment ends Sept. 15. For more information, call 855-419-3873.