Levoy Theatre seeks to put Millville's name in lights

MILLVILLE, N.J. Jessica Doheny began running Millville's Levoy Theatre on Dec. 2, and Amy Lombardo already is a fan.

"She knows what she's doing," says Lombardo, whose cozy bookstore/cafe is a half-block from the Levoy's marquee on North High Street. "She stopped in here to get to know the community, and right away, I was impressed."

Lombardo and other boosters hope the nonprofit theater, which reopened in 2012 after being dark for nearly four decades, will help transform the heart of Millville into an arts, dining, and entertainment district dubbed Glasstown.

But the Levoy (pronounced Lee-voy) won't be much of a boost to this blue-collar Cumberland County city of 28,000 without box-office hits.

Enter Doheny. She spent 11 years as assistant to the managing director and company manager at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre, home to grand productions and a robust subscription list that is the envy of many a performing arts organization.

"The Levoy is unique. I fell in love with it right away," the personable, energetic new executive director says, showing me the chandelier-lit mezzanine, the soaring auditorium, the backstage facilities worthy of Broadway.

From the photo mural of vintage Millville scenes on the mezzanine to the portrait of beaming hometown boy and baseball superstar Mike Trout in the lobby, this is no ordinary theater. And with nearly 700 seats and a balcony, it isn't a small one, either.

"You can never have too much fabulousness," Doheny says.

But how can a huge new venue on the southeast frontier of the metro area sell enough tickets to keep the lights blazing on that magnificent marquee?

"You have to know your audience and know what they want," says Doheny, who grew up in South Jersey and lives in Wenonah with her husband, Mark, a choral music director at Winslow Township High School, and their two young daughters.

"Our first challenge was to create a facility, and I think we nailed that one," Levoy board chairman Phil Van Embden says. "The second is to win the hearts and minds of the [regional] theatergoing public."

The schedule so far has featured stage musicals, pop concerts (including Christian rock), ethnic and horror film festivals, comedy (Tracy Morgan sold out), and children's theater (which failed to connect with audiences). The Levoy also is home to a resident theater company called the Off Broad Street Players.

"We're a little bit of everything," Doheny says, adding that she hopes to "give more focus" to the next season. The Levoy will begin membership and fund-raising campaigns, and boost its marketing efforts, she adds.

Operating the theater costs about $1 million annually, Van Embden says. The Levoy was rebuilt mostly with public money, including a $1.6 million Urban Enterprise Zone loan on which the city has deferred payments until the end of 2015.

The city also has reduced the interest rate on the loan from 6.5 to 2 percent.

"No question, we want the Levoy to succeed," Mayor Tim Shannon says.

The restoration of the theater, which closed in the 1970s, took the better part of 15 years and itself seems worthy of a play.

Joey Pierce Jr., an early champion of saving the theater, died at a young age (a plaque in his honor hangs on a wall in the mezzanine), and in January 2011, a large portion of what was left of the structure collapsed.

No one was seriously hurt. But the fact that the theater held its grand opening a mere year and a half later says something about the city's grit - and commitment.

"The Levoy is a long-term investment," outgoing City Committeeman Jim Parent says.

With the help of strong leadership, loyal audiences, and luck, it should pay off.

Break a leg.


kriordan@phillynews.com

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