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A year later, how Suffolk’s pro theaters are weathering the COVID shutdown

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Argyle Theatre was on their opening weekend of Cabaret when they had to shut the doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.

It’s nearly a year later, and it’s still unclear when these actors will be able to return to the stage again.

Dylan Perlman, 27, opened Argyle Theatre at 34 W. Main St. in Babylon Village with his father Mark in the spring of 2018.

When the pandemic started in March, Perlman feared his industry would be the first to be shut down and the last to re-open.

His fears have proven true.

“It’s certainly been a curveball,” Perlman said. “When it first struck, I certainly, like many of us, didn’t think that a year later we’d still be in this crisis.”

He and the staff have been keeping close eye on the state’s reopening phases, and following updates on when venues and Broadway can reopen, and how.

But it’s been like reading tea leaves for The Argyle — which is privately owned and utilizes professional actors — and the two other pro theaters in Suffolk: The Gateway and the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport.

“For a venue like ours, we don’t really have concrete information or guidance on a timeline of what our reopening looks like,” Perlman said.

Argyle Theatre has been doing as much as they can, like hosting virtual events, hosting classes, and renting out the space for performers who want to film their personal projects.

This doesn’t exactly pay the bills.

doing all they can

Similar to The Argyle Theatre, the John W. Engeman was about to open a show the week before the March 2020 shutdowns happened.

Back then, it was “two weeks to stop the spread,” a phrase often repeated by state and county lawmakers, and the governor.

Then weeks turned to months.

“We’ve been planning on reopening since the day after we’ve closed,” said the Northport theater’s owner, Richard Dolce, 52.

Dolce, who is originally from Kings Park but now lives in Northport, adds they’ve been in contact with some of their actors — they’ve become friends over the years — but the theater just can’t find work for them.

That is, for those who even still want to act.

“Everyone’s trying to navigate this time,” Dolce said. “I know some people went home; some people left the city; some people left the industry altogether.”

Director of development and PR for The Gateway, Scot Allan, 41, says the Bellport theater has been trying to make the most of a bad situation.

“We really hustled in 2020 when we went into lockdown,” Allan said. “Unfortunately we had to cancel our season like every other theater did, but we adapted quickly and used our outdoor space to stay lucrative and relevant.”

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A file photo of The Gateway in Bellport.

Allan says The Gateway has five acres of property which allowed them to do drive-in movies six nights a week, a drive-in Gala fundraiser hosted by actor Isabella Rossellini, a drive-thru version of their annual Gateway’s Haunted Playhouse, and hold outdoor classes all summer.

The Gateway, Long Island’s seminal professional theater, was also able to broadcast an exclusive live stream performance of the Rat Pack is Back from Las Vegas for New Year’s Eve.

Argyle Theatre teamed with the Babylon Chamber of Commerce and local talent to stream a special New Year’s Eve live event as well.  

Perlman said that doing “all that they can,” financially, has included seeking government aid and digging into the family’s own savings to survive.

ripple effects

Restaurants and shops have been missing the extra revenues theaters bring to areas as well.

Richard Bedrosian, co-owner of the Babylon Burger Bar had promoted his restaurant through The Argyle’s playbills many times with full-page ads. The restaurant is located across Main Street from the theater.

In return, he hyped Argyle Theater — the island’s newest professional theater — by giving patrons 10 percent discounts on their meals for showing a ticket stub.

It was a win-win scenario for both businesses, and things were humming before the prolonged shutdown.

“It’s a very noticeable change,” Bedrosian said.

Even Argyle Theatre’s kids classes every Sunday brought in a lot of business for the Burger Bar, because it became a go-to lunch spot when classes let out.

Since then, they’re had to come up with a Sunday brunch to make up for that lost crowd.

“We’ve grown together,” Bedrosian said. “And once they can reopen, I’ll be right there by their side promoting them as much as I can.”

Even though the shutdown has been difficult, Perlman believes people will be more excited than ever to attend a live performance when that day comes.

“It’s sad they had to close,” said Davide Pontarin, 27, of Babylon, who is a Molto Vino bartender and theater-goer. “But I’m very happy to have the opportunity again soon to go buy a ticket and see a show.”

Yet, somehow, the theater owners and staffers have remained optimistic during a period that will likely will be remembered as the darkest times for the live performance industry for decades to come.

“With the amount of unpredictability, I’d say there’s fear, but it’s motivating fear,” Perlman said. “Because it motivates us to plan and look ahead and say, “OK how do we come back stronger and be in it for the long-run?”

Top: Interior of Argyle Theatre.