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Many malls are in a precarious position these days. With the immense popularity of online shopping, brick-and-mortar malls often struggle to retain tenants.
So some switch their focus, as has the Lebanon Valley Mall, from being solely a shopping destination to becoming a community gathering place, home to things other than retail stores.
Serendipitously, with this trend, the St. James Players theater group found itself looking for a new home. And it discovered that the mall was going to be a perfect fit.
Previously, the company was housed in a 1,700-square-foot space at St. James Lutheran Church, 53 Chestnut St., Lebanon. When COVID hit, the theater closed; the company spent the off time remodeling the space. They reopened in early 2021, but in August 2022, the church building was sold to the Paloma School.
“When we lost our space, we had an emergency meeting,” the Players’ founder and director, Karen Dundore-Gulotta of Myerstown, said in a phone interview. “And everyone just started looking for something.”
“A lady by the name of T.J. Fisher saw that the mall was renting some spaces. I thought it was a long shot, because I thought it would be too expensive. She called the mall, and lo and behold, they had several spaces available for us to look at, and it was within a range that we could afford,” Dundore-Gulotta said.
So in January, the company decided to go with a 4,500-square-foot space there. Dundore-Gulotta detailed other reasons why the mall location was the best choice.
“They have a large parking lot, they’re handicapped accessible, they clean the parking lot (so we don’t have to),” she said.
Volunteers are doing the remodeling work. And fundraising efforts for the project are ongoing, she said.
“All of our money comes from our ticket sales,” which is $10 a ticket, and from donations, she said. “When we had our emergency meeting – and a few meetings after that as well – we came up with some fundraising ideas.”
Those included a spaghetti dinner, a raffle, and basket sales.
“We still don’t know if we have enough money, but we have plans for more fundraisers in case we don’t,” she said. “We haven’t used money to this point because we had a bunch of material we could repurpose – some lumber and some paint, and some donations of those kinds of things – so we haven’t spent much yet.
“But we are still waiting to get our architectural drawings back so we can get our permit to build the needed walls and the raised seating. (Once that happens), then we’re going to be using a lot more money,” she added.
So right now, the work involves things like painting and patching walls. Once they receive the drawings (which are being done by Chris Fenstermaker; they will then go to an architect he works with for approval) and apply for the permit (she was told it would take up to 30 business days to receive it), work will begin in earnest, Dundore-Gulotta said.
In the meantime, the company is still renting their space at the church on a month-to-month basis. Their next scheduled performance is “Here Come the Cows OR…Never Say Moo in Mesa,” which runs Feb. 23-26.
“It’s an old-fashioned melodrama, like ‘Dudley Do-Right,’ with the hero and the heroine – mustache-twirling” and all, she said.
“We can continue to do our shows and work with our actors,” she said of the arrangement. “It’s giving us time to build and we can still stay engaged with our community, with our actors, with our kids, with our families.”
Dundore-Gulotta, a retired special education teacher, started the St. James Players with $1,200 of her own money in 2018; it became a 501c3 nonprofit the following year.
The Players do shows geared toward children, but most productions include adults. About 24 to 30 actors participate per show; the staff numbers eight to 12 people depending on the show. The company does six shows per year.
Read More: Karen Dundore-Gulotta and the St. James Players survive the pandemic
Its mission is to “provide quality, affordable theater productions, using people of all ages, abilities, and talents to unite communities,” Dundore-Gulotta said.
The company mostly rents the rights to its productions, but Dundore-Gulotta said she is working on a project with Jack Ferry on the adaptation of his book for the stage. She said she also has a script for a musical she herself has written that she’d like to produce in the new space; her son Joseph wrote it and the music was written by Ethan and Eliot Tucker.
She also wants to do more workshops, host guest teachers, and offer dance and vocal classes in the new space.
“We want to go back to our pre-COVID (state), where I’m offering sewing classes or acting workshops or things like that,” she said.
Dundore-Gulotta hopes the new space will be ready in June; their debut performance there is tentatively slated for Sept. 14.
“We’re not allowed to tell anyone (what that show will be) until Aug. 6 because there’s a professional theater company in the area that has the rights to this Broadway show,” she said. “We wrote a grant and we got the rights to it, but because the professional theater’s doing it, there are rules that we must follow.
“There’s a lot of dancing and tap dancing in the show; it’s a Broadway musical that many people love. Fingers crossed, we are all hoping that we will get to do it in our new space,” she added.
And Dundore-Gulotta is ultimately certain that each – the company and the mall – will benefit the other.
“I’ve actually seen an increase in people at the mall from when we first started looking at it,” she said. “I don’t think that our theater relies on anything else in the mall, and I feel we will bring a lot of foot traffic to the mall.
“Parents will drop their children off for rehearsal, so maybe they’ll go get a slice of pizza at Mancino’s. Or maybe they’ll go to Boscov’s and buy a new outfit. So I see our theater actually bringing more people to the mall,” she added.
And she’s been pleased with the reception given to the company by the mall itself.
“Everyone in the mall has been very nice,” she said. “The custodians have checked in on us, and they’re always cleaning things – I’m surprised how clean the mall is.
“I think the mall is going to take a drastic change here in the next year or two. I think it’s going to become more of a community center and a place where people meet and get together and enjoy a live performance. They’re changing with the times, which we all have to do eventually,” she added.
For more information on the St. James Players, find the theater company on Facebook or visit its website.
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