Making Sure the Show Goes On
Westchester Broadway Theatre has been a smash-hit with audiences since opening in 1974, as well as a commercial success. Here’s how they’ve done it
Co-owners Bill Stutler and Bob Funking have run Westchester Broadway Theatre for 42 years. They focus on crowd-pleasing musicals to drive ticket sales and experiment with new revenue streams to boost profits.
Photos by Michael Polito
Bill Stutler was in the market for a new line of work when he and his wife happened to attend a dinner-theater production in his hometown of Huntington, WV, in the early 1970s. Stutler, then a Thornwood resident, had been fired from his job in advertising after having worked on accounts from Arm & Hammer and Alka Seltzer to Rockefeller’s presidential campaign. I’d like to do a business on my own now, Stutler thought.
The idea of running a dinner theater seemed appealing to Stutler, who’d once dreamed of being a movie director. He approached his friend Bob Funking, who’d also recently been fired from an advertising job, about opening one in Westchester. Funking, a gourmet cook, was game.
By 1974 they were up and running, opening An Evening Dinner Theatre in Elmsford with their debut show, Kiss Me Kate. Today, the theater, later renamed Westchester Broadway Theatre, brings in $6 million to $8 million in annual revenue, supporting 120 employees. As its name suggests, it is known for bringing Broadway performers to Westchester. “We didn’t know it was going to be this large when we started,” Stutler says.
Nor did they know how long their new foray would last. Since the theater began its run 42 years ago, it has held nearly 200 mainstage productions and nearly 1,000 special events and concerts. “We’re the longest-running Equity theater in the state of New York,” boasts Stutler. “We run 52 weeks a year. We’ve outlasted many Broadway theaters.”
A Challenging Start
But getting to this point was not easy. After the duo raised $7,500 from friends and took a small government-backed loan to get started, they realized they needed a lot more money to develop and open the theater in the shell of a building that a developer had made available. It ultimately cost them $400,000. That meant reaching out to other connections.
“Bob happened to mention what we were doing” to an acquaintance, recalls Stutler. Funking’s contact, a businessman from New Jersey, was interested in investing, as was his business partner. The two men, who ran a portable-restroom business, had sold property in Florida and needed to reinvest their earnings to avoid penalties. “They put in $100,000 to start,” says Stutler.
That allowed Stutler and Funking to hire a builder. They also recruited Judith Chafee, an architect who had designed Funking’s vacation house in Massachusetts and whose work often appeared in Architectural Digest, to design the interior. “The design of the building greatly influenced that of the interior, and we attribute a lot of our success to that,” Stutler notes.
Not long after they began building, local officials got worried and put a stop to the project. “They thought we were opening a strip joint,” says Stutler. To win supporters, Stutler and Funking began presenting their idea to influential members of the community, including producer-director William Hammerstein (son of the legendary lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II), whom they persuaded to join their board. A relative of William who had worked in the advertising business with Stutler and Funking became their spokesman, helping the theater win favor in the community.
After a four-month delay, An Evening Dinner Theatre finally opened, with a culinary-school graduate as chef. After nearly two decades in that space, the theater moved to a new building in the area that boasted a larger performance space and brand-new technology. Renamed Westchester Broadway Theatre, the venue opened in 1991 with A Chorus Line.
For culture lovers, the theater has been a welcome addition to the county: great entertainment without the trek into the city. To keep theatergoers coming back, the partners chose productions with a hit track record. “The most popular are shows like Chicago, Grease, and West Side Story,” Stutler reports.
They also focus on attracting top-quality talent from Broadway. “We go into the city and spend a week casting with a director, choreographer, and musical director,” explains Stutler. “For a 21-person show, we might see over 350 people. We’ve always agreed on the people in the roles we have. We’ve been successful on that basis.”
The theater has also recruited talent from the TV and movie world, including actor Scott Bakula of Star Trek: Enterprise fame; director Rob Marshall, a six-time Tony Award nominee; director-choreographer Rob Ashford, also nominated for multiple Tonys; and director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall, whose Broadway productions include Kiss of the Spider Woman.
The theater is organized as a business, not a nonprofit, though, Stutler deadpans, “Many times there are no profits.”
Costs are varied. Investing in state-of-the art technology has been a large expense for the partners. The sound system and lighting cost more than $1 million in cumulative investments, according to Stutler.
“We also have food costs, energy costs; people don’t realize how many costs there are,” Stutler adds. “We’re combining a restaurant and a theater, so we have backstage crews, kitchen chefs and cooks, box-office people, salespeople, PR people, financial people — it’s quite a large operation.” Payroll is the biggest cost, he says, followed by rent and food.
While there have been lean years when Stutler and Funking had to trim their budget, “We haven’t really been to the point where we were going to give up,” says Stutler. By keeping close track of advance sales, they always have a good picture of how the theater is doing, he explains, noting that group-ticket sales are particularly important.
The theater’s team is well aware they are competing for attention against movies, local theater groups, and restaurants. Currently, theatergoers pay $50 to see a show or $84 to see a show and have dinner, with a choice of five to seven entrées. It’s a bargain compared with Manhattan theater prices, he says.
New Revenue Streams
To keep Westchester Broadway Theatre sustainable, Stutler and Funking have experimented with their business model. To add to revenues, they are actively promoting a corporate membership with local partners, including Bank of America, Con Edison, financial-services firm MBIA, real-estate-investment trust Mack-Cali, Stew Leonard’s, and the White Plains Police Benevolent Association.
The theater also offers four luxury boxes, which are popular among their corporate clientele. (Renting the boxes costs a maximum of $125 per person, including a more expansive menu and wine recommendations.)
In addition, the theater stays full by offering a variety of performances on Monday and Tuesdays, when it doesn’t hold regular shows. “We do anything we can think of,” says Stutler. “We had [singer-drummer] Vincent Talarico and his band on Columbus Day; we have lots of comedy nights. We’re in contact constantly with talent agents who book these kind of acts.” There are also two matinees during the week, on Wednesday and Thursday, in addition to the regular matinee on Sunday.
But the core of the theater is the musicals it chooses, and Stutler is constantly on the hunt for crowd-pleasers. Saturday Night Fever, featuring the music of the Bee Gees, will run through the end of November. Then comes a holiday show called Christmas Inn for four weeks, followed by a return of Saturday Night Fever in January. Next year, the theater will feature a relatively new show, called The Keys, which has been produced at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT, and Long Wharf Theater in New Haven.
“It’s ‘Jersey Girls,’” says Stutler. “They’re trying to raise money to save a mobile-home beach resort. It’s got all of the great hits of the ’70s. Also, we finally got Mamma Mia, which starts in March. Then, we’re doing a show we haven’t been able to get for 38 years, Annie.”
Then, Stutler pauses a moment. “It’s a tough business to be in,” he says. “You’re starting a new business with every show.” Fortunately, that’s a challenge he and Funking have mastered many times before.
Freelance writer Elaine Pofeldt is a frequent 914INC. contributor.