MEDIA — It's hard to believe how far the Media Theatre has come in 25 years.

Now, as the Media Music Theatre 25th Anniversary Gala and Benefit plans to entertain and treat guests in grand style, to mark 25 years on State Street in the county seat, it is best to start in the foyer to fully understand and celebrate what has happened in the iconic building since 1994.

Over entry doors is printed: “The mission of the Media Music Theatre Company is to promote and nurture the imagination, diversity, and joy unique to music theatre by the production of new and classic works; to herald music theatre to young people as an art form that is relevant to their lives and to foster an understanding by them that it is indigenous to their cultural heritage.”

Artistic Director Jesse Cline, Executive Director Patrick Ward and Company Manager Roger Ricker have been at the helm throughout the quarter-decade and several iterations of the enterprise. The three provided a look back to the beginning.

“For anyone involved as we started, who would have thought this would work for 25 years? Most theater companies don’t last this long,” said Cline.

The story starts with Cline managing summer stock theater in Lock Haven, Pa. Nearby, Media Real Estate owner/developer Walter Strine Sr. had created a retirement living facility at his former high school in Milton, Pa., which included a performance center.

Cline and Ward were recruited to establish dinner theater programming known as Rockwell Productions. Ricker came first, as activities director at the Milton facility, and quickly became an essential part of the venture, including on stage performing.

Back in Media, the Strine-owned, former movie theater was in transition, with concepts that were proving either not feasible or favorable to the community. Strine essentially offered Cline and Ward the opportunity to duplicate Milton shows at the Media Theatre.

The 1927 gem, built for the stage and screen, was restored as a labor of love by Strine. “My Fair Lady” opened the new endeavor in 1994.

In 2000 Rockwell ended and the Society for the Performing Arts emerged as a non-profit, which now makes fundraising a continuous necessity. The trio and a small professional staff continued an annual season of Broadway-style shows and began to grow other facets of the organization. The next major transition came in 2003 when Strine sold the theater through some underwriting and a state grant, making Media Borough the sole owner.

Ward noted the enterprise was renamed “Media Music Theatre Company” in 2005 to better represent everything that happens on stage and under the roof. Each year Cline and colleagues develop a “season” of five shows with “something for everyone,” from the pure entertainment of classic shows like “West Side Story” to the edgy and somewhat controversial “Thrill Me.” The holiday/winter show is always geared for the family.

“This year we presented ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ It was the third time we’ve done it, and this production did better at the box office than the other two,” said Ward.

Although the theater features some local actors, particularly when children are cast, there is a strong distinction between “community theater” and “theater based in a community.”

“We are the only professional theater in Delaware County. We use Equity actors,” said Cline, further explaining Equity requirements. Stage crew and backstage personnel are members of their union.

Among those who have graced the Media stage over the past quarter century are Andrea McArdle, the original "Annie;” Justin Guarini, an early "American Idol" star; Andy Karl, who went on to star in “Jekyll and Hyde” in Media; and Wanda Sykes, who sold out the house appearing as Miss Hannigan in “Annie.”

Although not a repertory company, actors very often are eager to return to Media Theatre in a variety of roles. A Cline and audience favorite is Ann Crumb, Broadway actress and Tony nominee. Crumb has been in more than a half dozen shows, starring in “Souvenir” and superb in “Sunset Boulevard.” Although invited by Cline for the first gala, having seen her in “Aspects of Love,” he had no idea she grew up next door in Upper Providence.

“The Media Theatre developed in not too many years, and people in New York were asking about auditions. It quickly got a reputation for quality work,” said Crumb. “I feel I did some of my best work there. But I love that young careers have been launched. The theater does amazing things for the community – the State Street Miracles, which includes my brother Peter, teens and children. The theater is a wonderful gift to have.”

Jennie Eisenhower has a strong Media Theatre resume – delightful in “Nunsense,” daunting in “Showboat” and daring in “The Wild Party,” for which she won a Barrymore Award.

“Media Theatre was one of the first professional gigs I got in Philadelphia. Opportunities there were one of the reasons I moved back to this region after being in New York. Jesse and Patrick have been so generous, and that’s been instrumental in my career. Plus, Jesse believed in me as a director,” Eisenhower said, with both “1776” and “Chicago” as her directing credits.

“Not everyone sees artists in a holistic way, as Jesse does. But I love both performance and directing, which helps keep the shows I love in my life,” Eisenhower said, noting she will assist Cline with “Saturday Night Fever.” which ends this season.

These great talents, among hundreds of others, charm and excite audience. But they also lead Cline and colleagues to another great passion – the next generation of actors, singers and performers.

“We really feel we are the incubator for young talent. Three children from the Briglia family started here,” said Cline, noting Dan works with the theater, and both Ava and Beada have gone on to Broadway.

The opportunities for children and teens include acting classes; advanced vocal and acting education in the New School; Delco Idol and Delco Idol Jr. (later called The Vocalist); and Camp Media Theatre.

“We started with two, two-week camp sessions, and now up to five throughout the summer,” said Ricker.

Zoë Nesbitt, now eight, beautifully exemplifies how children can grow through Media Theatre programs. Her father, Ira, accompanied her to the theater for some preparation prior to the gala where she will perform. Ira Nesbitt said he likes the “inviting community” of the town and theater where, he noted, his daughter has thrived.

“I started taking acting classes when I was 4 or 5, and I’ve participated in every children’s show I can. My favorite was ‘The Snow Queen.’ And I’ve been in 'The Vocalist,'” Zoë said. “I like getting up to sing in front of all those people.”

Clearly mature for 8, Zoë reflected on her theater experiences.

“It feels good being yourself," she said. "I learned about taking the time so that everything is right,” she said, also mentioning the friendships that have developed.

The “State Street Miracles” go beyond friendship to a mission of inclusiveness for everyone with a desire to perform. Created by Trisha Cofiell with her son Jake, the troupe of individuals with intellectual disabilities first found a home at the Media Theatre. They have gone on perform around the region, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, and as far as the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Cofiell also has another perspective, covering the theatre for two decades as the features editor for the Daily Times.

“It is such a cultural asset that brings people together and adds an important artistic element to the fabric of Media and beyond. I loved covering the theater and watched the quality of the shows continually rise. Watching the evolution has been exciting and fun,” said Cofiell.

Cline included the partnership with veterans an important aspect of the overall programming. He made certain he expressed his gratitude to Jack Holefelder (who will be honored during the gala) and Media Mayor Bob McMahon for their continued support.

Suitably, perhaps, McMahon has the final word, having played a vital part in saving the theater and securing funding. His focus now is the economic impact of the Media Theatre.

“People who come for musical theater probably do something else, shop or dine. But the biggest factors for me are the children’s show and activities since that is building a constituency for the future," said McMahon. "The theater improves lives of many. It is all pluses with no minuses.”

FYI: For all information about the 25th Anniversary Gala and Benefit, and to purchase tickets and sponsorship, go to http://www.mediatheatre.org.

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