Paramount’s closure could send theater awards to Stepinac — or Jersey
Albert Stanaj and Nicole Heney lead the cast of Stepinac’s “The Phantom of the Opera” at the 2012 Metropolitan High School Theatre Awards at Peekskill’s Paramount Center for the Arts last June. With the Paramount shuttered, Stepinac has offered to host the 2013 Metro Awards. Photo by Seth Harrison/The Journal News
Danielle Rudess is accustomed to things being in flux. After all, she runs a children’s theater.
But this year, as she approaches her busy season, simultaneously running her Helen Hayes Youth Theatre and producing the 15th annual Metropolitan High School Theatre Awards, she’s facing even more uncertainty.
Barring a quick reversal, the Metros have lost their home.
For the past seven years, the Metro Awards — honoring the best in high-school musicals in Westchester, Rockland and Bergen counties — were held each June at the 1,025-seat Paramount Center for the Arts in Peekskill. But last October, the center’s board of trustees abruptly pulled the plug on the Paramount, suspending operations.
The city of Peekskill, which owns the Paramount, is interviewing candidates to step in and run the restored former moviehouse, with a decision expected soon. Still, each day of uncertainty brings Rudess closer to having to make a call: Hold out for the Paramount’s hoped-for revival or seek another venue.
“The problem is that we need at least 1,100 seats,” Rudess says. “It’s hard to turn away parents and all of the kids who want to be part of it. That’s the spirit of it, to celebrate it with a huge mass of people. The warmth of our environment is part of its appeal.”
At the Paper Mill Rising Star Awards in Millburn, N.J., Rudess says, each nominee gets two tickets.
“You get the nominee and his mother, as opposed to the whole community,” she says. “The schools up for show of the year can bring a crowd, but they have something like 100 schools in the event.”
The Metro Awards typically feature 30 or so schools from across the Lower Hudson Valley, with awards in 26 categories ranging from best lobby display to best overall production.
Rudess has found that 1,100-seat venues — with rents that the group can afford — are few and far between in the area.
The newly reopened 1,800-seat Capitol Theater in Port Chester would be ideal — and open the event to more theater fans that ever — but the rental fee is a staggering $50,000, Rudess says.
The Tarrytown Music Hall has 843 seats, 300 too few for the event which has sold-out at the Paramount for years.
Purchase College’s Performing Arts Center’s Concert Hall has the right number of seats, 1,372, but is booked for dance recitals in early June. Besides, their rental fee is $10,000 for eight hours, the producer says.
The best option to keep the Metro Awards in Westchester, Rudess says: Archbishop Stepinac High School has offered its 1,022-seat Major Bowes Theater.
But having the awards hosted by one of its participating schools — let alone, last year’s winner of best overall production — might raise eyebrows.
“I think it would open Pandora’s box, being at Stepinac, being in the environment of a school that’s nominated,” Rudess says. “If they win it’s going to be a problem and if they don’t get nominations, it’s going to be awkward.”
“(Stepinac’s director) Frank Portanova is an amazing guy, with a tremendous, ethical way of working with kids,” Rudess says. “Any issues that would come up certainly wouldn’t come up from Archbishop and Frank. I think Frank would handle it in an ethical way. But it would still be awkward for everybody else. If that turns into our only option, I’d send an email out to all the schools and make sure that everybody’s OK with it.”
The other option is to take the awards to the 1,370-seat Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood, N.J.., which is closer and easier to get to for schools in lower Westchester and Rockland than the ride up to Peekskill.
For example, it’s 19 miles from New Rochelle to Bergen PAC, 34 miles to the Paramount.
“It’s hard for me to make that choice, because I’m a Westchester girl,” Rudess says. “I’m a Rye, N.Y., girl who lives in Rockland, so it’s hard for me to think about moving it to Bergen.”
Rudess says she hopes to get definitive word on the Paramount, and where the Metros will end up, by mid-February at the latest.
“It’s still early,” she says.
“My biggest issue was ‘Can we pull it off at all? Do we have any options?’ Now that I know we have options, we can go ahead and if I know in mid-February, I feel like people can make provisions for it.”
Rudess has already contacted the 45 judges on her mailing list, 35 of whom saw productions last year and scored every aspect of productions, from best child actor to best actress, from best costumes to outstanding comedic performance.
“They’re ready to get started,” she says.
Change has been a constant for the Metros, which began at the now-defunct Helen Hayes Theatre Company in Nyack in 1999.
In 2004 and 2005, the awards were held in Nyack and White Plains, simultaneously, linked by satellite.
The awards have survived some schools leaving the competition and even the loss of the Helen Hayes Theatre Company, under whose auspices it began. When the theater closed in 2005, Rudess retained control of the popular youth theater she started there, under the name the Helen Hayes Youth Theater.
For years, it was known as the Helen Hayes High School Theater Awards, until the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., which bestows its own Helen Hayes Awards, complained to the estate of Hayes, a longtime Nyack resident who was known as “The First Lady of the American Stage.” Hayes died in 1993.
The awards continued, as the High School Theater Awards for three years, until they were renamed the Metropolitan High School Theater Awards in 2009.
Once again, the winners of this year’s Metro Awards for outstanding lead actor and actress will take part in the National High School Musical Theater Awards, which will bring together winners from 30 similar contests for a four-day program at New York University. The winners will take master classes from Broadway professionals, meet with NYU professors, see a Broadway show and learn two production numbers during the four-day event June 25-July 2.
The prize winners are eligible for college scholarships, professional internships, career coaching and opportunities for auditions, depending on their professional goals.