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Jun 26, 2018 12:11 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center Turns 20 Years Old

The Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Sunday evening. DANA SHAW
Jun 26, 2018 2:20 PM

By all accounts, 1996 was not a great year for Westhampton Beach.

The village, with a Main Street popular as a destination for the late-night clubbing crowd, was thrown into turmoil that May, when a young African-American man was badly beaten by a group of white men in a racially motivated attack outside Club Marakesh, a notorious nightspot that had been the site of many arrests and disturbances in the past. The attack received national attention and became a rallying cry for residents and stakeholders fed up with the village’s party town reputation and seeking a more family-oriented village and Main Street.

Opportunity knocked just after Labor Day, when the United Artists Cinema at the heart of Main Street permanently closed its doors after being in operation since 1932, giving the community an opportunity to work toward a changing landscape of the westernmost Hamptons outpost.

Several community members, civic leaders and store owners decided to take action. They bought the old movie theater for $300,000, raised $2.8 million to completely renovate it—and on July 4, 1998, opened the doors of the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center for the first time.

Among the theater’s early supporters were the late composer and pianist Marvin Hamlisch, a founding member of the WHBPAC board, and singer Judy Collins—both of whom performed benefit concerts in 1997 to raise money for the project.

While many of those involved in creating WHBPAC had little or no experience in theater, what they did have was determination and a lot of heart. Next week, the 425-seat theater officially turns 20, and in the years since its founding, the WHBPAC has carved out a comfortable niche on the East End, attracting some of the most popular musical acts in the country. Along the way, the organization has developed a vibrant hands-on children’s theater program and now offers entertainment for all ages all year round.

As WHBPAC hits the two-decade milestone, some of the individuals who were instrumental in the creation and operation of the theater share their thoughts and memories of how it all came to be.


Lon Sabella

Lon Sabella grew up in Westhampton Beach and saw movies often at the UA Cinema, sometimes with only four people in the audience. Which is why in the early 1990s, UA decided to put the Westhampton Beach cinema, and other properties that were not producing, on the market.

“I immediately called and said we want to buy it and convert it to a performing arts center,” recalled Mr. Sabella in a phone interview from his home in Palm Beach, Florida, where he now lives.

The “we” was the Westhampton Beach Village Improvement Society, and Mr. Sabella was its president. He explained that an arm of Merrill Lynch spearheaded the selling of all the targeted UA properties by taking them off the market to do a new evaluation.

“I kept track for five years,” said Mr. Sabella, a fashion designer who operated three stores on Moniebogue Lane. “Every six months, I called them. My biggest fear was it could become a Nike outlet.”

It was an opportunity that he didn’t want to miss, especially given what was happening to other businesses in the village.

“We were losing really good name stores. It’s not that Westhampton Beach did anything wrong. It was the economy and the times, and I just wanted to put the place on the map,” he said. “I thought if we could get a performing arts theater, it would reinvigorate the businesses and restaurants.”

So Mr. Sabella organized a fundraiser with Pat Kennedy Lawford and Betty Friedan in order to pay for a feasibility study of the theater.

“We raised tons of money and hired a company that tells you how to convert a movie house into a performing arts center,” he said. “They came in and did drawings, and then we went into negotiations with the theater. They originally wanted over $1 million for the property. We thought, how do we raise that kind of money?”

It turns out, networking is how you raise that kind of money—and Mr. Sabella was very good at it. He lobbied his neighbor, then-mayor Bart Wilensky, to help with zoning and planning issues. In May 1997, the theater was purchased by the Village Improvement Society for a negotiated price of $300,000.

“Within a month, every business donated their services so we could get it open for that season,” Mr. Sabella recalled. “I asked Marvin [Hamlisch] if he’d be the first performer. He said, ‘I’d love it, and you know my fee?’

“I said, ‘It’s $50,000—but you’re doing this for free.’

“He said, ‘Why would I do that?’

“I said, ‘Because your house is for sale, and this will drive your property values up.’”

Daytime television star Susan Lucci introduced Mr. Hamlisch that night and rehearsed her lines in the ticket booth, because there was no dressing room.

“A week later, Susan Lucci sent a $10,000 check for a dressing room,” said Mr. Sabella, who noted that the dressing room is now named for her.

More donations, and naming opportunities, rolled in. Over the next year, 60 percent of the $2.8 million needed for renovations was raised. The late Roger Stevens, part owner of Island Companies, provided his services at cost and completed the renovations in seven months, and on July 4, 1998, the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center opened to the public.

“It was easier than anyone thought to raise the money,” Mr. Sabella said. “If people know they’ll be remembered forever for whatever small part they did, they’ll put their name on plaques, chairs and sidewalks.”

He said they named every chair and even the sound system. “That’s the way we raised the money. They thought I was insane to come up with this idea. I said, ‘Sometimes insane can be fun. We have nothing to lose.’”


Len Conway

Len Conway was one of four people on the original WHBPAC board in 1997, and he served as chair and president of the board for 14 years before stepping down in 2011. Speaking by phone from San Francisco, where he now lives, Mr. Conway recalled the early discussions and efforts that went into creating the theater.

“A lot of what we were talking about doing was strengthening the community through the arts, making it a catalyst for the local economy,” Mr. Conway said. “That meant elongating the season, giving people more of a reason to use their homes or visit the village from other parts of the island.”

He stressed that they wanted a high level of quality. “To capture ongoing support and have people identify with the theater with a sense of pride and excitement, it had to be done really well, not just done,” he said. “We were building it for the long term and creating this for 20 years and beyond.”

Getting key people involved was vital. Among the early supporters were Neal and Cynthia Hochman. Through the Mollie Parnis Livingston Foundation, created to honor Mr. Hochman’s fashion designer aunt, the project received a $250,000 lead gift toward the creation of the theater.

“Neal was trustee of her foundation. It was our first large gift and gave us confidence to go forward,” said Mr. Conway, who added that other supporters and gifts followed, including from John Kanas, former chair of North Fork Bank, and his wife, Elaine.

He explained that the decision was made to be a presenting house and bring in acts on a short-term basis, rather than produce plays in-house. There was also an understanding that with Bay Street Theater and the Gateway Playhouse nearby, there was no need to duplicate efforts.

“In our conversations with the community, they were much more interested in a diverse program that would highlight music, comedy and various aspects of performing arts, not just theater,” Mr. Conway said. “We very much felt that a diverse program would make that more realistic and exciting for the community.”

Another major gift that had a huge impact on the community came from Nancy DeMatteis, who gave $1 million to create a children’s theater program—now a mainstay of WHBPAC.

“The theater has become such a fundamental core of the community … I couldn’t be more proud of what we’ve done,” Mr. Conway said.


Fred W. Thiele Jr.

New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. was the village attorney for Westhampton Beach in the late 1990s and recalls the time when its reputation was less than stellar.

“I remember downtown Westhampton Beach was anything but family-friendly,” he said. “They had the terrible incident involving Marakesh, and there were a number of nightspots around at that same time.

“It was perceived to be a nightspot, with traffic, noise and drunken behavior—not things that were helping the community or downtown business district as a whole.”

So when the application for the performing arts center came before the village, Mr. Thiele found that Mayor Wilensky and members of the various boards were very committed to making it work.

“There were a number of thorny zoning issues, including parking, and it required that the village government and proponents of the PAC really work closely together to resolve those issues,” Mr. Thiele said. “We had to put together a list of covenants and restrictions, as I recall, and it was not just thorny issues, but a fairly tight timetable for them to move forward.”

“It’s not unlike the situation now with the Sag Harbor Cinema—absent the fire, of course—and was a tremendous cooperative undertaking at that time,” Mr. Thiele added. “It all came together within the time frame. I think it was one of those examples of public/private cooperation that yielded a major cultural asset in the village.”

In subsequent years as a state legislator, he noted, both he and State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle have secured program grants to keep the theater running, but he credits the community with doing the heavy lifting in terms of financing.

“They developed a network of contributors and the bulk of their funding is from local supporters and benefactors,” he said. “That grassroots effort is why I think they’re so successful. It’s built from the bottom up—our money is the cherry on the sundae.”

“It’s one of the great success stories. They were the pioneers with what they were able to do,” Mr. Thiele added. “There’s been a focus on downtown revitalization all across Long Island—including in Patchogue and Riverhead. What happened in Westhampton Beach is the performing arts center became the anchor of the entire business district. It transformed its reputation as a place for nightclubs to a vibrant downtown where the PAC is the anchor and restaurants and stores are the beneficiaries.”


Gregory Minasian

For the past 15 years, Gregory Minasian has been the house manager at WHBPAC, where he oversees a team of more than 100 volunteers. A resident of Westhampton Beach since 1978, he has been involved in several community projects, but none have been as rewarding as the WHBPAC project.

His involvement began in 1996, when the Village Improvement Society and Mr. Sabella set out to purchase the movie theater. Mr. Minasian volunteered more than 1,000 hours as the construction liaison between the organization’s building committee and the project construction team, including a design group of architects, Jay Sears and Bob Gruber, and theater consultant Bob Lorelli.

“I was also very fortunate to work with contractor Roger Stevens and his staff, and of course, Len Conway, in the renovation of the theater, which was impressively accomplished in only eight months,” Mr. Minasian said. “I recall on July 4, 1998, as people gathered on Main Street for the dedication of the theater, we had the painters running out the back stage door with their dropcloths.”

“All in all, the renovation project brought together people who gave their money, their talent and their spirit like I’ve never seen before,” he added. “The WHBPAC is the jewel on Main Street of Westhampton Beach and has changed the village in a most positive way.”


Dr. Stanley Zinberg

Dr. Stanley Zinberg has served on the board of WHBPAC for 12 years, the last five as its chairman. Though not involved in the initial founding of the theater, he has seen how its presence has transformed the Main Street landscape.

“The theater brings in 35,000 visitors every year who eat at our restaurants and support our businesses,” he said. “We’re financially stable, more than we’ve ever been.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges, however. One of the biggest issues facing the board is the need to remind supporters and donors not to become complacent.

“They think we have a lot of money, and for a 425-seat theater we do, but for every dollar we derive from children’s programs or shows, we need a dollar of charitable donations,” he said. “Half our income comes from those donations, and if we’re not getting it, we can’t keep the doors open.”

Dr. Zinberg added that because the venue is small, philanthropy is also required to underwrite the cost of bringing in big-name performers who typically appear in 5,000-seat venues. But perhaps most important for the future of WHBPAC is the need to get the next generation involved in taking leadership roles on the board.

“The people we would like to see on the board may not be prepared to make financial contributions yet,” he said, “But we’re constantly looking for new board members that share our enthusiasm and have time to get involved.”


Mary Skillern

Mary Skillern, the current president of the WHBPAC board, has been involved with the theater for 16 years and on the board for 10. In the last two decades, she has seen WHBPAC become the cornerstone of Main Street, bringing people to Westhampton Beach from outside the community who dine and shop before or after a show.

“It’s surprising how far people come—they come from Connecticut when we have a big name, and they’ll spend the night,” she said. “They also come from way up the island and New Jersey.”

Looking further down the road, development of new audiences remains, as it does for many East End nonprofits, perhaps the biggest issue.

“We know our demographics and our audiences. They like a big name. They like to come see a star, and the rock-and-roll is really hot—the Fab Faux could come every year,” Ms. Skillern said. “People want to hear ‘their music,’ but the world is changing so fast with the internet. The next generation, who is the star for them? Who is it they want to hear?

“Our challenge for the future is how do we target the next generation and get them in our audience,” she added.


Clare Bisceglia

For Clare Bisceglia, the executive director of WHBPAC for 16 of the theater’s 20 years, this is a time of transition. On July 16, Ms. Bisceglia officially steps down from her position, and taking her place as the theater’s new executive director will be Gram Slaton.

Though she has loved her time at the theater, Ms. Bisceglia is now looking forward to heading off to warmer climes.

“I haven’t made up my mind yet,” she said in a recent phone interview when asked where she’s headed next, though it’s likely to either be LaJolla, California, or Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “I love working and love what I do. The only negative thing is I can’t do the winters out here anymore. I need to get somewhere where the weather is more even.”

As she makes her exit from WHBPAC, Ms. Bisceglia is happy to report that as Mr. Slaton steps into her role, she’s handing over the reins of a smoothly functioning organization.

“The staff here is superb with a shared passion and vision,” Ms. Bisceglia said. “He’s walking into a great situation. The building and property is in perfect condition, there’s no debt and we have a great reputation.”

While the shows will continue to go on, as they have for the last 20 years, Ms. Bisceglia looked back by offering some words of wisdom about WHBPAC’s own role in reinvigorating the life of the village.

“Live performance has an impact on audiences to be soothed, inspired, educated and entertained,” she said. “We are a true not-for-profit and always looking at the next generation and educating them on what this institution stands for and how it contributes to the overall well being of the community.”


Kenneth P.




In a phone interview this week, New York State Senator Ken LaValle recalled that what really impressed him about the creation of WHBPAC 20 years ago was the sheer dedication of the individuals who were able to put their ideas into action.

“These folks were, I’m going to use the word, incredible, in raising money to get the theater started,” said Mr. LaValle, who was particularly taken by the ability of Mr. Conway to make things happen. “They had a vision of what they wanted it to be and they went out and raised the money.

“I said if a group of people on their own go about and beat the bushes to create what ostensibly was something very good, this is the kind of thing government should be supporting,” he added. “I realized this is something that will continue over a period of time to make Westhampton Beach Village a great place.”

Since its inception in 1997, Mr. LaValle has lent his hand to support and enhance WHBPAC in many ways. The senator assisted the center in its earliest days by securing a $250,000 grant through the New York State Community Enhancement Program to fund the extensive renovation/expansion expenses. In subsequent years, he has helped secure presenting grants as well as educational funding from the New York State Education Department, which supports the theater’s School Day Performances program for grades pre-K through 12.

“It has done exactly what it was meant to do—become a piece of the village,” said Mr. LaValle of WHBPAC. “I have, from time to time, gone to shows, and the thing for me that is critically important is the education component. They do a very good job there and it’s lived up to what it should be doing.

“No one is disappointed.”

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The Performing Arts Center has been the biggest change to Westhampton Beach since the 1938 Hurricane, and it did probably as much good for the community as the hurricane did damage.

To the many folks mentioned in this article we all owe tremendous thanks for transforming our village and turning it around. My good friend Jane Dell was there from the beginning also, contributing her fine sense of design, her abundant energy, her vast network of friends and associates, and her wonderfully ...more
By Turkey Bridge (1906), Quiogue on Jun 28, 18 3:14 PM
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