A wandering band of nomadic thespians has finally arrived home.
For the first time since the late 1960s, when the troupe abandoned the dilapidated Playhouse at Horseshoe Lake, the Batavia Players has a theater to call its own.
The Players staged its first show on Friday night at the new Main St. 56 Theater in City Centre.
Norm Argulsky, board secretary, prop manager, and house manager, said the opening of the new theater is a dream fulfilled for the entire group.
"At long last, we are finally in a theater that we really want to be in," Argulsky said as patrons filled the lobby waiting to enter the first performance of Cry Baby, The Musical, performed by members of the Summer Youth Theater. "This is it for pretty good Players. We're going to be here permanently. We have a home. We have a lovely theater. We have a great group of people working for us. They have worked very, very hard, extremely hard in order to have this come to fruition, and it finally did. I mean, we never thought it would happen. And now here we are, opening night. I feel like Broadway."
And Board President Pat Burk said the success of the opening night was a pleasant surprise.
"(Opening night) went extremely well," Burk said. "I was very surprised that we had our biggest audience in quite a few years. We were excited that the audience had such a great reaction to the show."
Batavia Players is transforming (the project is far from complete) more than 14,000 square feet of former medical office space into a lobby, theater, dressing rooms, prop rooms, and office space at a cost of more than $1 million.
The project is made possibly largely through a portion of the Downtown Revitalization Grant awarded to the city by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2017.
Batavia Players received $701,750 from the pot of $10 million in grant money awarded to various Downtown projects. In 2020, the group was also awarded $417,000 from the New York Street Anchor Grant Program.
To complete the project, the Players still need to raise $265,000 from private donors. So far they've raised $41,000 (to make a donation, visit bataviaplayers.org).
Argulsky couldn't be more pleased with how things have turned out so far, though he's already running out of prop and costume space, he said.
"I love the theater, the actual theater. The theater is wonderful," Argulsky said. "I'm looking at my costume room, and I'm saying I don't think I have enough room. But the theater is absolutely great. I mean, the sightlines I've sat all over. I've been able to see the different perspectives from the seats, and there's not a bad seat in the house. So I think the audience will like it. I like the fact that there are wider seats, which are not going to be touching the shoulder of somebody else. And the sightlines are great. The sound is great. So I think everybody is going to enjoy being here."
The initial reviews from the first-night patrons standing in the lobby were positive.
Carol and Dave Waples drove from Spencerport for the opening and described themselves as big supporters of Batavia Players.
They love the fact that the new theater is downtown and were impressed with the overall ambience.
"Oh my gosh, unbelievable," Carol said. "I couldn't wait to get in here. We were so so excited about this. Yeah, it's very, very, very nice. Very impressive from what we've seen."
Co-workers Vicky Muckle and Lisa Casey teamed up to attend opening night. Muckle said she was also there to support a friend, Paige Sikorsky, who was appearing in the show.
"It's a definite improvement over the last place they were at, so I'm excited to get inside," Muckle said.
Casey praised the project for "bringing life back to this area."
They had dinner downtown before the show and said that's the value of building the theater in downtown Batavia.
"You figure the DRI money was awarded in 2017, and now it's 2023, so to see it actually happening is really cool," said Casey, who worked in the City Manager's Office when the DRI award was announced. "I'm super excited. I didn't think I was to be here for the first actual show, so Vicki bought my ticket, and I'm so excited.
Except for that brief period at Horseshoe Lake in the 1960s, Batavia Players has never had a space it could really call its own.
The Players were founded in 1931 by Ethel McIntosh, a Latin teacher at Batavia High School, and was comprised of 25 members to start. Their first production was "Beggar on Horseback" at Batavia High School (now the Middle School). Until the 1960s, the Players performed shows at the New Family Theater on Main Street and in school auditoriums.
After abandoning the Playhouse, the Batavia Players almost disappeared until Wanda Frank helped revive the group. When the school district started raising rental prices, the Treadway Motor Inn offered performance space as part of a dinner theater. In that era, they also performed at the newly constructed Genesee Community College campus. In the following decades, the Batavia Players staged shows at schools and churches until renting space at the Harvester Center a few years ago.
(History Source: History of the City of Batavia by Ruth M. McEvoy.)