Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Haddonfield theater project long way from being a box office hit

There's a lot to like about the concept of the Boxwood Arts Theatre and Cultural Center in Haddonfield.

The proposal to repurpose a handsome but vacant historic house as an art gallery, preserve a modest but marvelous patch of woods for a park, and build a 365-seat theater with a 4,000-square-foot ballroom is nothing if not ambitious.

And while the size and scope of those ambitions concern some neighbors, preservationists, and representatives of nearby theater organizations, Boxwood Arts is making "fabulous progress," in the words of David Stavetski.

"We aspire to be a premier arts venue in South Jersey," says Stavetski, chairman of the executive committee of the nonprofit Boxwood Foundation, which takes its name from the 18th-century house called Boxwood Hall.

The borough bought the landmark house and surrounding 1.5 acres at Haddon Avenue and Lake Street for $1.8 million in 2014. A grassroots effort to create an arts campus on the site got started in 2016 and has been gaining traction since. And fund-raising has begun in earnest -- a single benefactor already has pledged $1 million -- for an $11 million facility.

"We will offer a rich array of programming," says Stavetski, president of Haddonfield Plays and Players. The respected community theater group would become the resident company in the new performing arts space; Haddonfield's Markeim Arts Center, also an established institution, would operate the gallery in the Boxwood Hall building.

"Live theater, film, music, speakers, an elegant space for ballroom dancing, and a gallery that can host touring exhibits," Stavetski adds. "Nothing out there will have this blend."

Supporters say the arts campus will be a vibrant destination on the region's cultural landscape, helping draw visitors and customers to downtown restaurants and other businesses.

So as I said, there's a lot to like.

But preservationist Kim Custer, one of the authors of a book about naturalist Samuel N. Rhoads, who spent part of his childhood in Boxwood Hall, wrote a long letter to the weekly Retrospect newspaper describing Haddonfield as weary of "over-developments that are destroying our town's character."

And Brian Poliafico, a father of two whose Lake Street house is immediately adjacent to the Boxwood property, calls the proposed theater building a "monstrosity" that will have to operate  "day and night" to stay afloat. Rather than boosting the nearby business district, he says, the campus will create traffic and parking problems.

"My wife and I are supporters of the arts. We love theater," Poliafico adds. "But this is not the right location."

Some South Jersey theater professionals wonder whether the pool of donors -- and patrons -- is big enough to sustain a new performing arts enterprise. Particularly given the competition from theaters in Philadelphia, Hammonton, Pitman, and Williamstown -- as well as the noise President Trump is making about cutting or eliminating federal support for the arts.

"Politically, it's not a good climate to begin a new [performing arts] venture," says Bruce Curless, founder and producing artistic director of the Ritz Theatre Company in adjacent Haddon Township.

"We're all competing for the same dollars, the same donations," he says, adding that "big funders" often are more interested in supporting the arts in Philadelphia.

Says Robert Bingaman, the South Camden Theatre Company board president, "Times are tough. I don't envy Boxwood at all. But people know Plays and Players, and [the facility] is something Haddonfield could use. I wish them luck."

Other arts organizations have offered letters of support to Boxwood, including Symphony in C, which was founded in Haddonfield, and the Philly Pops. "We look forward to making  Boxwood Arts our South Jersey home" for community education and other programs, Pops president Frank Giordano wrote in a letter posted on the website.

Like me, these organizations find lots to like in the Boxwood Arts concept. But clearly there are lots of questions about the proposal as well.

And while I'm sympathetic to the concerns of neighbors like Poliafico, and preservationists like Custer, the biggest question is whether a 365-seat theater in the heart of Haddonfield can regularly fill enough seats to break even.

About that, I have my doubts.

Putting on a show is one thing, getting people to buy tickets to it is another. Simply to heat, cool, and keep the lights on in a theater and ballroom, and in gallery spaces inside a 200-year-old house, won't be cheap.

Stavetski says that market research and other forms of due diligence are underway, and that plans to build, endow, manage, program, and sustain this bold enterprise will be presented to the borough this year.

That's good news. Because the people of Haddonfield are the most important audience the Boxwood Arts Theatre and Cultural Center must win over.