“The idea was born when a small group of us, deploring the commercial stage, realized the need to spread good theater to small towns. There seemed present the need to decentralize the theater, and in so doing provide the starved movie-fed audience with a quality of production above the average run-of-the-mill stock play.
We had three willing people and an empty barn with which to start - why not try? With this incentive, we proceeded.”
— Sally Pomeran, “Summer Theater on a Shoestring,” The Christian Science Monitor, 1952
Humble Beginnings (1941-1950)
In 1941, Harry C. Pomeran bought a 70-acre farm in Bellport with intentions of starting a hotel. The property was built in 1827 for Charles Osborn and purchased in 1884 by J. L. B. Mott. Mott hired Stanford White to design a new wing for the Mansion House. Harry and his wife Libby converted the property into a resort hotel for Christian Scientists spending the summer on Long Island. Their three children Sally, David and Ruth planted vegetables, washed dishes, waited tables, and milked Daisy, the family cow. In addition to Daisy, the property housed two hundred chickens as well as hay, corn, and other farm essentials. The windmill pumped the family's water from a deep artesian well.
The Pomeran children entertained the guests by singing, performing skits and puppet shows and playing the piano. Local residents began lining up to see the performances, and Harry decided to make a small investment. Echoing Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, the family thought, “Let's put on a show!” In 1950, Daisy was evicted from the barn to make way for a production of The Taming of the Shrew, and the Gateway Playhouse had begun.
A Theatre is Born (1950-1961)
The Taming of the Shrew was a resounding success, and audiences flocked to see subsequent productions. Oldest sister Sally, now finishing up college, devoted her senior thesis to designing an arena stage in the family barn with haylofts as balconies on each side and dressing rooms in the stalls. Within a few short years, Sally Pomeran (now Sally Harris) had transformed the Gateway Hotel into a fully-functional professional theatre.
At this time, the Gateway presented a diverse body of work from classics like Shakespeare and Moliere to contemporary works from Christopher Frye, Tennessee Williams, and William Inge. "We envisioned summer stock here and planned to move into a New York theatre in the winter," David Pomeran said. They never moved to New York, but a few years later, in a letter from Eleanor Roosevelt, the Gateway was named the "official international theatre of the United Nations." What started as a family theatre on the “Straw-Hat Trail” was rapidly becoming a professional theatre with a serious pedigree. Indeed, a number of big names cut their teeth on the stage at the early Gateway Playhouse. Gene Hackman, Ulu Grossbard, Michael Gazzo, Ken Howard and Julia Migenes-Johnson all worked with the fledgling theatre company.
Indeed, one of Ruth (Pomeran) Allan’s fondest memories of the early days is the night in 1955 when Robert Duvall missed a very important cue in John Willard's 1922 thriller, The Cat and the Canary. Duvall, who was playing the villain, Charles Wilder, was meant to appear and choke another actor to death. Realizing Duvall wasn’t coming, the unfortunate costar improvised a brilliant solution. He turned away from the audience, moved upstage, and put his hands around his own neck to make it appear as though Duvall had done the job by sticking his hands through the curtain.
From the very beginning, educating the next generation of theatre artists was a focus of Gateway’s efforts. For the first ten years, students were the primary performers, directors, and technicians. Apprentices lived on property for the summer, and they took classes in the morning, rehearsed and built in the afternoon, and put on shows in the evening. “Learning by doing,” has always been the motto, and to this day, interns come to Bellport to learn by making theatre at the Gateway.
Looking back to how we began. An article reprinted from THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR, written in 1951, describes the forward thinking and initial inspiration of Sally Pomeran Harris, who, along with her two siblings, founded the Gateway Playhouse. Sally, David and Ruth Pomeran Allan’s vision and commitment to theater that would “not only entertain, but as a medium for world understanding” has propelled the Gateway Playhouse all these years. Like their talented family predecessors, Paul Allan, Ruth’s Son and his sister Robin, continue the legacy to this day.
From Summer Stock to Professional Theatre (1962-1970)
David and his father, Harry, were at the helm of the Gateway, by then known throughout the country as Long Island's leading Summer Stock Theatre and Training Center. In 1961, the theatre was selected as a Columbia Pictures talent farm. Casting Director Joyce Selznick sent young up-and-comers to the Gateway to gain acting experience, and the theatre’s productions provided opportunities for East Coast talent to be seen by West Coast producers and casting directors.
In 1962, the ever-increasing demand for professional production values led to the construction of the Main Stage Theatre. Professionals came from New York to run the Main Stage season, while the original Barn Theatre was used for student productions and smaller second stage plays and musicals. A few talented apprentices took on featured and chorus positions on the main stage as part of their training, but most focused on Barn Theatre efforts. All the scenery and costumes for the productions were built on the Gateway grounds, and dormitory facilities housed as many as 60 student apprentices during the summer months.
Throughout the 60’s, the Gateway produced as many as 16 productions a season, including a series of children's shows. Such full schedules required two plays in production, two in rehearsal and at least one in the audition process at any moment. Apprentices and professionals alike never lacked for work.
Gateway’s Second Generation (1970-1980)
In the 1970’s, the novelty and popularity of summer-stock began to wane. Seasons tightened from the 12-16 sixteen to 4- 6 productions as the Gateway founds its niche in full-scale musical productions. Ruth (Pomeran) Allan and her husband Stan took over as producers. The Gateway audiences continued to grow and included subscribers from all over the Island. The Allans, along with their children Robin Joy and Paul, oversaw all technical and artistic aspects of the business and continued the training programs. Paul gravitated towards the technical end of the theater including carpentry, electrical and sound engineering, while Robin spent her time performing on the Main Stage and writing, teaching and directing in Barn Theatre.
In the 70’s the training center expanded a lot. Young people who took part in the programs came to Gateway from all over the United States during the summer months as workshop students, apprentices and Actors in Training (A.I.T.s). Their training encompassed morning classes, afternoon rehearsals and evening performances. The faculty, directors, counselors and administrative staff united to give inspirational guidance to young actors.
A Third Generation of Producers (1980-1990)
"My kids were born in a trunk," Ruth Allen remembers fondly. Robin had her stage debut at 16 months, and Paul was always working behind the scenes. Paul remembers one night—well technically one very early morning—when Ruth was looking for her 12-year-old son who ought to have been in bed in the wee hours of the morning. She came into the theater, he recalls, and asked “sort of anxiously, 'Where's Paulie?' - 'He's up there on the scaffold. See him up there with the socket wrench?' someone on the crew said, pointing way up towards the lights. Well, that did it. Mom ordered me down and dragged me off to bed while everyone was hollering, 'But we need Paulie!'"
It’s no surprise, then, that when Ruth embarked on a new career as a Christian Science practitioner and lecturer and Stanley was elected to office as Brookhaven Town Clerk, Robin and Paul stepped in to run the family business. The siblings were co-producers in the early 1980's, but Robin, pursuing an acting career, joined a National Tour of Godspell and later moved to Los Angeles to become a casting director. Her credits include: When Harry Met Sally, Parenthood, Ghost, and the remake of Lord Of The Flies. Stage Manager John Hodge filled her place to become the Associate Producer with Paul for the rest of the decade.
The 80’s also saw vast improvements in the Gateway’s facilities. Computerized lighting systems were added, the fly loft completely re-rigged, and a state-of-the-art sound system installed. Meanwhile, onstage, the Gateway hit its stride, expanding offerings from 4 plays early in the decade to 6 or 7 in the latter half.
Gateway on Tour (1990-2000)
"People wanted to know if they could rent our costumes or buy our sets, so we decided to send out the whole show instead," John recalls. And send out the show they did. The touring company John and Paul began in the 90’s sent shows to 25 U.S. cities as well as countries around the world. The Gateway’s production of Andrew Lloyd Weber's Song and Dance enjoyed a 25-city national tour, and their version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music visited countries in the Far East including Malaysia, Singapore and—in a first for American musicals—South Korea. Other Tours produced internationally included Anything Goes, South Pacific, Camelot, and A Chorus Line.
Continuing the decade’s theme of expansion, Gateway took over the 650-seat Candlewood Playhouse in New Fairfield, Connecticut, in 1993. The first production at the new theatre was the show-biz classic, A Chorus Line. For the next five years, Gateway sends its shows to Connecticut. The Candlewood Playhouse productions received critical acclaim including many Connecticut Critics Circle Awards. In 1997, Paul Allan consulted on the renovation and restoration of Patchogue's derelict 1923 vaudeville house and movie theater, which reopened as The Patchogue Theatre For The Performing Arts. The Gateway discontinued productions in Connecticut in favor of expanding its local audience base to Patchogue. Gateway's 1998 production of Nutcracker On Ice was the first performance in the newly-renovated theatre, and for the next two years, Paul and John managed the Patchogue Theatre along with Gateway Playhouse.
Growing Pains (2000-2010)
In 2003, Robin became the Artistic Director at Gateway, rejoining Paul at the theatre’s helm. Under their leadership, show quality reached an all-time high. Indeed, Broadway-Caliber musicals were the story of the oughts at the Gateway. Ever-improving production values and the theatre’s growing reputation for excellence began drawing in Broadway stars. For instance, the record-breaking 2003 production of Miss Saigon that took Long Island by storm starred Broadway performers Raul Aranas, Kingsley Leggs, and Alex lee Tano, all reprising their roles for Gateway. The Main Stage also continued its history of debuting the next generation of Broadway stars as well with performers including Elizabeth Stanley, Kendra Kassebaum and John Lloyd Young appearing in Gateway productions.
Throughout the decade, Gateway presented four shows at the Main Stage Theatre and two in Patchogue in addition to hosting both a Children's Theater and a Holiday Season at the two venues. The Set Rental Division and Acting School enjoyed much success. Gateway sets found their way across the country to peer theaters and Universities, and the Acting School Division boasted several of their very talented alumni appearing in network television series and commercials as well as on Broadway.
Despite all these successes, the Gateway or the Acting School were not immune to the economic downturn that so effected arts organizations across America. By the end of the decade, the organizations were experiencing extreme artistic success and nagging financial difficulties in almost equal measures.
A New Chapter (2011-present)
In 2011, Paul and Robin Allan made the difficult decision to reinvent the family business, combining the Gateway Playhouse and the Acting School to form the non-profit organization, the Performing Arts Center of Suffolk County. As we make the transition from commercial family business to non-profit regional theatre, we are finding new opportunities to engage with our audience, building relationship with other area organizations, and reevaluating our artistic priorities. It is an exciting and challenging new chapter in our history, a chapter we invite you to share with us.