Lakewood, NJ – Behind-the-scenes at the Strand Theater
From The Asbury Park Press: Glenn Harrison has distinct memories of growing up in Lakewood — some fond, others a tad more awkward.
It was 1969, and like many pre-teens, Harrison was venturing in the world of dating. He took his crush to the Strand Theater, which used to solely operate as a movie theater.
“I probably shouldn’t even tell you this,” Harrison said, “but I remember being 13 years old and taking a girl on my first date (to the Strand). I saw the movie ‘To Sir, With Love’ with Sidney Poitier. I spent the whole time trying to get my arm around her. I was pathetic.”
Today, Harrison is 60, and he’s reunited with his first love.
No, not the girl. The theater.
The Strand Theater in Lakewood is approaching its 95th anniversary, and for many the venue has an air of nostalgia. Harrison, who serves as president of the board, is one of the many people working tirelessly behind-the-scenes to keep the theater relevant and make sure it remains an arts center.
Walking inside the theater, visitors are greeted by maroon, blue and tan colored walls and ceilings — all adorned in gold leaf accents.
The Strand puts on about 150 shows throughout the year. There’s local and national acts, including musicals, ballets, comedy acts and live music.
Chris Everett, the technical director at the Strand, said he typically spends 16 hours a day inside the historic theater in the days leading up to showtime.
“You just walk in the door and you feel the energy … I mean we’re standing here,” Everett says while on stage, his hand pointing out into the sea of empty seats. “What do you feel? It’s just amazing …”
The Strand, which opened its doors in 1922, was designed by Thomas Lamb, a legendary theater architect of the 20th century. (His most notable works include the Capitol Theatre in New York City, which has since been torn down.)
The venue’s initial purpose was to serve as a “tryout” theater for Broadway shows before they went on to the big stage. It was renovated in the mid-1980s to early 2000s, but maintained its original look since the theater is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Strand can seat 1,022, but when it comes to acoustics, there’s not a bad place in the house. “It’s designed so you can whisper on stage and everyone can hear you,” Fran Kirschner, public relations for the Strand, said. “It was built before there were these high-quality sound systems. When we have performances, (like the Atlantic City Ballet), the ballerinas on their toes will sometimes get a little concerned because you can hear them ‘swishing…’ ”
Kirschner is interrupted by a loud ogre-like growl. The entire stage begins to shake.
The stage is covered in props for its evening show of “Shrek the musical” — there’s a dragon, gingerbread cookie, swords, and a subtle green glow coming from the lighting.
Downstairs in the dressing room, there’s a new generation making memories inside the theater. Rudy Leustek, 28, of Brick, is sitting in makeup five hours before he’s set to hit to stage as Shrek.
He’s getting green teeth painted on by Nick Spinelli, 19, of Toms River, and the makeup designer, who often works shows for the Strand.
“This is so gross,“ Leustek says to Spinelli. "It tastes like moldy toothpaste.” For Spinelli and Leustek, this is their time to "meditate” before the chaos.
“I love this theater so much,“ Spinelli said. "It’s like a theater kid’s home. This is where I grew up — it’s either this stage or Ocean County College’s stage. (When I saw Strand), I was like, ‘Now, this is a stage.’”
Leustek has been having dress rehearsals at the Strand for the past week — he’s been doing musicals since he was 10 years old.
“Shows are great. It’s a place where you get to not be yourself,” Leustek said. “And (the Strand) — it’s like a Broadway theater, but you’re in Lakewood.”
Since its inception, the theater has also housed nationally renowned acts, including Alice Cooper, Louis C.K. George Carlin and Taylor Swift.
Harrison said Carlin, the comedian, was a Strand favorite — on stage, he was a riot, and off the stage, a sweetheart.
Ray Coles, a board member for the 17 years, said during Carlin’s soundcheck, a bunch of teenagers snuck into the theater and sat in the balcony area to observe.
“They started bantering back and forth with him,” Coles said. “He played (along) with them for a bit, then said, ‘OK, I’ve got to go relax before the show.’ He then went downstairs, went to the tech guy, and goes, ‘Ask them if they wanted to come downstairs and have dinner with me.’ ” The Strand stage has even seen the likes of Taylor Swift. She performed back in 2007 when she was 16. “We signed her right before she hit it big,” Coles said.
Coles said Swift, who had never visited the Jersey Shore before, was supposed to get a tour of the area. One of the board members asked if Coles' son would show her around.
“They asked, ‘Would your son be willing to spend the day at the beach with her?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ It (ended up) raining, and she goes, ‘Oh, I’m going to the mall instead.’ So he wasn’t needed,” Coles said with a laugh. “My son — he will always hate the rain.
“He could’ve (had) a song (written about him), and he could’ve been the first of many broken hearts.”
All in the family
While plenty of national acts have graced the Strand’s stage, the theater’s main goal is to be a spot for local talent.
Coles said an artist who maybe spent the previous night playing acoustic on the beach in Asbury Park can host their album release party at the Strand the following night.
“It’s great to have the bars out there that musicians can play at, but when they come here … they’re performing for people who want to hear them play — not for people who want to go out and have a beer and listen to the music in the background,” Coles said. “They’re the focus here. That’s what we really strive for. We make sure there’s a place for them to come so that they can learn their craft and one day hopefully face a bigger audience.”
Story link, with video and extensive photo gallery, at: http://www.app.com/story/entertainment/events/2016/07/25/behind—scenes-strand-theater/86722200/
ABOUT THEATRE HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF AMERICA: Founded by Ben Hall in 1969, the Theatre Historical Society of America (THS) celebrates, documents and promotes the architectural, cultural and social relevance of America’s historic theatres. Through its preservation of the collections in the American Theatre Architecture Archive, its signature publication Marquee™ and Conclave Theatre Tour, THS increases awareness, appreciation and scholarly study of America’s theatres.