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June 17th, 2009: The North Shore Music Theatre announces that it is in fact closing due an inability to raise enough funds.  Click here for the story.

It was the press release that many were hoping to never read. “The not-for-profit North Shore Music Theatre, faced with the reality of the current economic crisis, announced today that without immediate philanthropic support it will close its doors after 55 years of providing performing arts and educational programming to millions.” That was December 28, 2008.

Unable to cover its operating costs, the theatre put the call out to its fans and supporters with the goal of raising $500,000 by the end of January and another $4 million by the end of April. Money began pouring in, but not enough to keep the performances running. Fifty-seven employees were laid off in mid-January and the music came to a halt. At press time, more than $400,000 had been raised, enough to keep it afloat until April.

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Starting in 1955 with “Kiss Me Kate” and up until its most recent production of “High School Musical 2” this past January, North Shore Music Theatre (NSMT) has never veered from its mission: “to celebrate, perpetuate, and invigorate the art of musical theatre.” With a tight-knit community of producers, directors, writers, composers, musicians, and acclaimed Tony Awardwinning Broadway actors, along with a talented technical crew, this Beverly theatre has consistently orchestrated and delivered interpretations of classic and contemporary works, as well as theatre training programs for children.

Problems for the theatre first began piling up after a fire in 2005. The debt incurred as a result of renovations, combined with lackluster ticket sales, lower than expected donations, and a struggling national economy, led up to the December 28 press release.

But there’s far more to NSMT than just balance sheets and box office numbers. We decided to ask some of the people who helped to make this Beverly stage a local institution what the theatre has meant to them. Overwhelmingly, the sentiment was that this is more than just a stage; it’s a family, and to see it disappear would be a tragedy for everyone on the North Shore. What follows is a brief look back at the North Shore Music Theatre told through a few voices from its past.

Memories, All Alone in the…

Betty White (“The Boyfriend” and “The King and I,” 1960):Performing there was so much fun. I was rehearsing “King and I” while doing “The Boyfriend.” Two such delightful shows to do. We would rehearse with the whole company in the morning and then come back to do the show in the afternoon. Allen [Ludden, White’s late husband] and I would always check the cars in the parking lot to see how many people would be coming to the show. And once I got in there, all these little kids that I knew so well who had watched us rehearse earlier that day were running around with our makeup all over their faces, asking me “Who am I?”

Dixie Carter (“Romeo and Juliet” and “Twelfth Night,” 1971): I’ll never forget the children there. The students would wiggle paper clips back and forth until they broke in two; then, with the sharp broken pieces, they could create deadly slingshots with rubber bands. During a matinee of “Romeo and Juliet,” one of these paperclips nearly hit the eye of the actress playing Juliet. She stopped the play and told everyone in the audience that this was not worth it to her. “I’m not going to give you one of my eyes,” she told everyone. “I’ll be leaving the stage now and once the teachers have picked up all the paperclips, then I’ll come back.” The children were mischievous. They got it, though, and were very grateful for what they saw. Every time we came out for a curtain call, they were on their feet applauding. It made it all worthwhile because the children by the end of the performances just loved it.

Jon Kimbell (Artistic Director and Executive Producer, 1982-2007): I loved every day there and have such a passion for the theatre. It wasn’t like I was going to work. It was a shining beacon in the country for education and the development of new musicals. Everyday was an adventure.

Barry Ivan (Former Director and Choreographer, Current Artistic Director and Executive Producer, 1995-present): As someone who has been at many theatres nationally and internationally, what’s great about working here is that you completely have to think out of the box. By working in the round, you have to look at it from all sides. Actors have to think about where they’re walking at all times. Every single artist, actor, designer says this is the most freeing experience they’ve been involved in. As a choreographer, I can’t hide anyone anywhere in the round. You have to play to people’s strengths and the effect of that is that everyone feels their part is important because they’re always in front of the audience.

Maureen McGovern (“Letters From ‘Nam,” 2001): I will never forget the production of “Letters From ‘Nam.” Two days into it, September 11 fell upon us all. The piece is a very emotional piece to begin with, but it had great humor as well as strong political statements. It was a whole gamut of emotions throughout the evening. We didn’t work the night of September 11 but we did a matinee the following day with a performance in the evening. Wednesday at 1:30 I got a call from my stage manager. He said, “Do you remember we have a show at 2pm?” I hadn’t even showered and we were 20 minutes from the theatre. I put my makeup on in the car. Got there at 2:04. Got in the door, ripped my clothes off, got into costume and was on stage at 2:07. It was hard the first couple of nights getting through the show. At the end of the show, we always acknowledged those who served in Vietnam and those who we lost. Everyone stood up and wept and cheered. As the week went on, we had asked anyone in public service to stand up—first veterans, then firemen, policemen, those who give their lives for the safety of others. It was an intensely emotional experience and an amazing life-transforming moment. We all needed a release of some sort after what happened and this was very cathartic for all of us.

Kimbell: “Letters From ‘Nam” wasn’t selling well initially, and then 9/11 happened. It was like night and day. It was amazing how that piece hit home with everyone.

Milena Govich (“Nine,” 2004 and “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” 2005): Barry Ivan directed “Nine” with Robert Newman. I played Carla, the vamp, who had a big sultry number early in the show. Barry decided to stage it in the shower. I came up in a working shower with five nozzles, lots of steam, and a door. I initially thought that’s crazy and brilliant all at once. It comes up through the center of the stage, I’m singing, wearing a towel, and halfway through the number the water starts spraying. It’s a moment in my acting career that I will never forget. The audience loved it.

Geroge Dvorsky (“The Full Monty,” 2005, “A Christmas Carol,” 1989-2005, and many other performances, 1987-2005): During “The Full Monty” in 2005, there was no way to do a light wall. We had to be butt naked with people five feet in front of us. Initially, Kimbell told us to stand naked with our backs to the audience; then we said, “If we’re going to do it, let’s just do it.” It was like a rock concert. People were so nervous for us that they really got into it. That first time, it felt like the lights were on for two minutes. It was one of the most thrilling experiences of my 30-year career. The audience was going wild and crazy, clapping and chanting.

Theater in the Round

White: You’re surrounded by the audience and you change your whole performance to play to everyone so that nobody feels like they’re behind you. It’s hard to have a fourth wall that goes all the way around. And you’re moving around a lot. I had to dance in these stiff shoes for “The King and I” and got infected blisters. Allen would have to bandage my heels when I got home. It was a painful.

McGovern: I enjoy working in the round. I make sure that I included everyone—somehow bringing them to me. It is a large place, but no one is that far away from you, so it has a great intimacy.

Kimbell: I love working in the round—it’s a communal experience. It goes back to telling stories around the campfire and all the way back to the Greeks. When something happens that is emotional, you’re really brought into it. You’re much more connected to the action. If I could take you up there with a houseful of people, you would sense instantly what I’m talking about. There’s an instant connection.

Govich: I had never performed in the round before. There is absolutely nowhere to hide—you can’t get away with anything. You are always downstage center. There’s no such thing as being stuck in the back row. It was very freeing for me because there’s something to react to at every single angle. Barry Ivan made it easy for me. He would start rehearsal by giving a tutorial about working in the round. While you can be seen all the time, you can also be blocked by other people at times. So we had to be aware of the angles of our bodies. He was very clear about what would work and wouldn’t work.

Dvorsky: You have to be true to your character because someone is seeing you as soon as you walk in. You’ve got to stay in character. The aisles are an extension of the stage, so you can’t daydream and let your mind go somewhere else. You’ve got to be there mentally 100 percent of the time.

An Uncertain Future

White: [The audience was] always very warm and kind—and that’s the beauty of a neighborhood theatre. They feel like they more or less own it and they spoil you at the end. This stage keeps theatre personalized to everyone. If it closes for good, they’re going to feel the loss of that afterwards for some time.

Kimbell: There was a real opportunity to develop an arts center with theatre, concerts, and education. We were reaching 100,000 young people every year and developed the Youth Performance Academy (300 students each year) as well as a summer program with Governor’s Academy. If this theatre closes for good, this is going to affect so many people.

Ivan: People are truly wowed because of the intimacy factor of this theatre—being close to the stage. People are usually surprised at the story telling. If it closes for good, it will truly be a shame. The theatre is the creative economic engine of the region. Unfortunately, this is happening to a lot of theatres around the country.

Dvorsky: The audience was great over the years. They were always thrilled and generous and always leapt to their feet. The theatre has to survive. It’s such a great place to work and it’s like family there. To close it would be a real hit to the community. I can’t believe this is happening. —Jack Morris