The Play’s The Thing: Queens needs a year-round theater dedicated to plays

By Ronald B. Hellman

Would you believe that in all of Queens, population at least 2.5 million if the 2010 Census counts everybody, there is not one venue for year-round theater? Not a one! Sure, we have a number of theater companies that produce two or three shows a year, schools and colleges that do about the same, and our only performing arts center, Queens Theatre in the Park, that offers theater along with lots of other things like dance, comedy and song entertainers, cabaret acts and ethnic festivals. But no year-round theater.

I’m talking about a place that operates close to 52 weeks a year where you can see edgy contemporary plays, mysteries and comedies, seldom performed works, classics, Shakespeare, musicals, children’s theater, original works and staged readings. Brooklyn has the Gallery Players in Park Slope and the Heights Players in Brooklyn Heights, among other venues, Manhattan has lots of stages in addition to the commercial theater of Broadway and Off-Broadway, but Queens is lagging far behind.

Looking over the map and recalling my military career — since I’m not a politician, I don’t have to embellish my service record, but I am a Vietnam-era veteran, although no one was shooting at me at a south Jersey missile headquarters while I was defending Philadelphia – I came upon two former Army bases, Fort Totten and Fort Tilden.

Not too long ago I took a ride out to Tilden, now part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, to see The Rockaway Theatre Company’s production of “Cactus Flower”. The trip takes in the Belt Parkway and the Marine Parkway Bridge, leading to the Post Theatre, Building T4, where the troops used to see the latest movies.

In late 1997 Rockaway Theatre got permission from Gateway to perform in the building, long unused, in exchange for restoring and renovating it. Easier said than done — the place was a mess. Months later, with a few dollars and lots of people donating their time, energy and hard labor, a viable theater was created, 284 seats worth, and the first full season was launched in June 1998. However, there was no air conditioning or heating, and, don’t ask, no working bathrooms or running water. Portable toilets were available across the road for the first two seasons.

Now 12 years later, still not quite the way they would like it, Rockaway Theatre has overcome a lot of adversity and has turned the old movie building into a quality, pleasant theater venue that attracts sold-out audiences. Before heading out there I had never seen “Cactus Flower,” a huge Broadway hit in the mid-’60s, written by Abe Burrows, with lots of good comedic roles. The plot centers on a dentist who tells his girlfriend that he is married, but he’s not. Go figure. The usual complications follow, leading, of course, to plenty of laughs and a happy ending. Rockaway’s cast was uniformly strong from top to bottom, including that well-known scene-stealer, Bernard Bosio, proving once again that a small part doesn’t mean you don’t get noticed. Next up for Rockaway, a rare group that performs in the summer, is “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”.

Which brings us to the other end of Queens and Fort Totten. Not nearly as secluded as Fort Tilden, it was also decommissioned in 1974, and is now owned by the City of New York. Some buildings have been restored, like the former Officer’s Club, currently home to the Bayside Historical Society, but most are falling apart and are unused. One of those is the base’s movie theater — what will become of that? To be continued.

Contact Ron Hellman at RBH24@Columbia.edu.

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