Landmark Jersey Shore theater, rising from bankruptcy, is set to reopen

JSURF08P Surf Light Theater
Theater productions will return to Beach Haven’s Surflight stage in June under new ownership.

Beach Haven Mayor Nancy Davis can recall fighting off mosquitos while watching Surflight Theatre shows on a hot, open field in the height of summer when she was a child.

Davis, now 72, grew up spending summers in the Jersey Shore town, and in the 1980s it became her permanent home. She watched Surflight grow from staging productions on a field to its permanent indoor home at Engleside and Beach Avenues downtown. So when the theater closed after the 2014 season, Davis said, she was saddened.

But after two seasons of a darkened stage, theater productions will return to the Surflight stage this summer under new ownership.

“The revival of this theater is so important to us. The theater is important to the town’s economy, and everyone always used to ask me what was going on with Surflight once it closed,” Davis said Tuesday.

The 67-year-old theater closed the doors of its 30-year-old building in early 2015 after filing for bankruptcy. A restructuring under new management had failed. On Monday, Surflight announced Al Parinello as the theater’s new owner. He purchased the theater from TD Bank for $2 million.

Footloose, the rock-and-roll musical, will begin the theater’s 2017 season on June 23. The theater will also reopen its adjacent Show Place Ice Cream Parlour, which features performers who serve the desserts, on June 20.

Parinello, 67, has a wide performing arts and musical background. Parinello, who splits his residence between Old Tappan and Brigantine, is the former owner of WJSE-FM (102.7) at the Shore and is currently the lead producer for The Fantasticks on Broadway.

He came to know Steve Steiner, Surflight's former producing artistic director, who will resume that role in June. The two collaborated decades ago on shows staged at the former Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City.

Parinello said he had read about Surflight’s woes in 2015, and its misfortune struck a chord. Last November, he spoke with Steiner about what could be done to reopen Surflight. He decided the theater was worthy of reopening, and purchased the building.

Steiner, who left the theater in 2010 when it restructured, is hopeful it will thrive again.

“I don’t think the old management understood the peculiarities of running a theater like this,” said Steiner, 65, of Beach Haven. “You really need to coordinate and partner with the local restaurants and businesses to thrive.”

When the theater shut down after the 2014 season, it was selling just under 23,000 tickets per year, Steiner said, far fewer than the 53,000 it sold in 2009 during his tenure.

Still, Steiner and Parinello said they have budgeted cautiously, planning to sell around 23,000 tickets in the first season. The theater will operate as a nonprofit.

Although the Borough of Beach Haven has no financial involvement in Surflight, Davis said she is hopeful residents and beach visitors will support the theater, and has so far only heard positive responses to news of the theater’s return.

Barbara Cardillo Lako and her family have vacationed near Beach Haven for years and have been patrons of the theater. The Lebanon Township, Hunterdon County, residents were saddened when the theater closed.

Her daughter, Megan, 19, who is studying musical theater, hopes to audition to be a performer working at Show Place.

“We’re a theater family, so it was heartbreaking. I was so excited to tell Megan when I saw it was reopening, and we will support the shows there now in any way we can,” Lako said.

Following Footloose, the theater plans to run a long lineup of other main stage shows including Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Newsies, Hairspray, and Million Dollar Quartet, Steiner said. There will also be a concert series and children’s show programming.