Smithtown Performing Arts Council leaders on Wednesday said they have begun a campaign to raise $400,000 for a down payment on the 2 East Main St. theater from which the group has produced Broadway-style shows and children’s programming for more than a decade.
The announcement came after the group’s former executive director, who owns the theater, said late last month that he was putting the building up for sale, with a $1.6 million asking price. Leaders of the Arts Council, a nonprofit run by area residents, countered with a $1.3 million offer.
"The future of this theater is, unfortunately, in jeopardy," said Arts Council board president Mike Mucciolo from the theater stage at a morning news conference, flanked by Smithtown’s elected leaders, including Supervisor Edward Wehrheim, council members and state and county representatives.
Arts Council leaders plan a Sept. 18 benefit performance and other fundraising events this fall. A Gofundme drive has raised $6,300, mostly in small donations.
Many of the elected officials who spoke described the theater as a driver of economic development, citing the examples of Babylon Village, Patchogue and Huntington.
"We have put millions of dollars and millions of man hours… to revitalize the business district," Wehrheim said. "The theater is the anchor of the Smithtown business district."
With more than 360 seats and a dozen shows a year, the theater is a powerful draw for the handful of Main Street bars and restaurants, so much so that some run specials aimed at theater patrons on performance nights, Wehrheim said in an interview.
Local media treated the theater’s 1933 opening as front-page news, detailing the cost of admission — 25-cent matinees, 15 cents for children — and the first show, a Western called "The Conquerors."
In 2002, a group of investors led by Ken Washington bought the building from United Artists for $405,000, according to property records. Under Washington, the theater offered live performances and children’s dance and acting classes. Hundreds of children have participated in the classes; a few, such as Ashley Reyes and Chris Messina, have gone on to professional acclaim.
Washington was both landlord to the Arts Council and its salaried executive director until earlier this year. He now lives in South Carolina. In a phone interview last month he said the building would be best used as a theater, "but, economics being what they are, I can’t predict the future."
He did not agree to an interview request Wednesday but wrote in an email that the Arts Council’s offer is "under consideration." There are, he added, "other interested parties."