Royal Star Theatre brings Peanuts to life onstage

By Stephanie Meditz

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Royal Star Theatre taking their final bows after a performance of “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown.”

Last weekend, Royal Star Theatre brought audience members back to their childhoods with its production of “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown.”

The four-show run at The Mary Louis Academy in Jamaica was the company’s first full fledged production since the COVID-19 pandemic.

In her directorial debut with RST, Alison Kurtzman made the difficult choice of what show to put on after two and a half years away from the stage and ultimately made the perfect decision —  a lighthearted, universally loved production with a small cast.

“We put a lot of thought into what was the right show to do in terms of what cast we would have available, how comfortable people would feel coming down to audition or coming to see a show, all that casting,” she said. “It was just really exciting to be able to kind of help this and be the first show back.”

“I don’t think people realized how much they missed this until they came back to it,” she continued. “It’s just a really exciting time for all of us, and it’s really great to be able to be back in some semblance.”

The musical “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” consists of a series of vignettes that depict Charles M. Schulz’s beloved Peanuts in adorably funny situations that align with their infamous traits.

For instance, Linus van Pelt (played by Danielle Fleming) and his signature blanket led a lively dance number,”My Blanket & Me,” but not before he attempts and fails to walk away from it.

Lucy van Pelt (Aglaia Ho) stomped around and demanded the other Peanuts to participate in a survey to measure her crabbiness level.

Daniel Kuhlman especially shone in the titular role — from start to finish, he emulated an anxious child with every stumbling step and pout when the cute little redhead once again did not notice him.

“Most of Queens’ community theaters are just coming back this summer, so everyone was just so excited to be here that it wasn’t hard to get excitement out of the cast,” Kurtzman said. “It really didn’t take much to get them to have that exuberance.”

It was no small feat for this cast to adopt children’s body language in a convincing way —  the Peanuts are all children (or dogs), but RST’s cast was made up entirely of adults.

“Characterization is super important in this musical because you’re remaking these beloved comic strip characters and all these specials that people watch around the holidays onto the stage,” Caitlin Leahy said, in reference to her role as Snoopy. “You have to be larger than life, especially since it’s a stage production.”

Leahy, who wanted to play Snoopy as soon as she found out about the show, screamed when Kurtzman called to tell her she got the part.

“I feel like Snoopy and I have a lot in common,” she said. “Very effervescent personalities, but Snoopy can be very sassy at times, so I’m trying to bring out that side of me more…There are a lot of times where Snoopy has this switch between being a calm and stoic personality and switching to this very funny, comedic, almost predatory dog who still has animalistic instincts. ”

Leahy, the youngest member of the cast, attended high school at The Mary Louis Academy and returned to its stage as a college student.

“As I’m still in the area for college, I’m always passing by,” she said. “I’m officially an adult now onstage, and it feels different because I’m working with different people and it’s a different production. And while the change was pretty drastic, I’m still at where I started my theater experience in freshman year.”

Although this was Leahy’s first show with RST, she had arguably the most difficult stage directions in the show, between standing atop her doghouse, chasing metaphorical sticks on all fours and finding a balance between human and canine movements.

The performance was held at The Mary Louis Academy in Jamaica.

Daniel Kuhlman (Charlie Brown) likewise had a difficult role to play, given that his character was likely everyone in the audience’s favorite.

“I think more than trying to copy any previous idea of what Charlie Brown is, I tried to look at it more from ‘What does a seven-ish year old with anxiety look like?’ and just sort of use that as a base and go from there,” he said. “And then make sure that whenever I’m rehearsing lines at home or when I’m running the songs, I’m always keeping in mind that I am an anxious, very young child.”

Although Kuhlman never studied theater or pursued it as a career, it has been inseparable from his everyday life.

He posts niche theater content on his TikTok account, @dankuhlman, which boasts 12.9k followers.

“Anyone who knows me…knows that, at any given point, it’s not ‘What’s your next show?,’ it’s ‘What are you in rehearsals for right now?’” he said.

Royal Star Theatre dedicated its run of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” to Natalie “Cookie” Knisbaum, one of RST’s founding members who died recently.

To learn about Royal Star Theatre’s upcoming productions, visit their website at www.royalstartheatre.org.

Legendary Midway Theatre turns 80

A milestone at a Golden Age theater

Midway Theatre, today

By Michael Perlman

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It is not too often that patrons can take their children to the theater where their great-grandparents had their first date or saw a “who’s who” of actors in Classical Hollywood Cinema.

Those memories come alive at the historic Midway Theatre at 108-22 Queens Boulevard in Forest Hills, an Art Moderne community-recognized landmark.

Patrons can say “Happy 80th Birthday, Midway!” which debuted with a gala opening on Sept. 24, 1942, earning it the status of one of Queens’ longest continuously operating theaters.

Midway Theatre upon completion in 1942.

The theater was named after achieving an American victory in the Pacific island outpost during WWII’s Battle of Midway.

Opening attractions were the U.S. Navy’s Technicolor short subject, “The Battle of Midway,” as well as “The Pied Piper” and “Just Off Broadway.”

A long-list of the theater’s other classic films include “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Casablanca,” “Pride of the Marines,” “Help!,” “West Side Story” and “Saturday Night Fever.”

Films further came to life with celebrity visits including Bob Hope and Lucille Ball, who conducted a meet and greet.

The “MIDWAY” vertical beacon and marquee offers a lighting spectacular along Queens Boulevard.

Also of distinction is a streamlined accordion-style and curved corner façade, and a whimsical circular lobby with a 30-foot ceiling with domes and a sweeping staircase leading to a picture window.

Architect Thomas White Lamb, Courtesy of great-grandson Tom Andrew Lamb.

The Midway was designed by America’s foremost theater architect, Scotland native Thomas White Lamb (1871 – 1942), along with consulting architect S. Charles Lee.

“Intimate Facts About Myself,” a whimsical cartoon-illustrated pamphlet introduced patrons to the theater in 1942. It read, “I am what you call modernistic – with all the newest wrinkles and latest gadgets. Here and now I want to give thanks to the late Thomas Lamb, one of the greatest theatrical architects. In me, his last theatre, you will find the best example of his genius.”

Offering insight to novelties, it read, “You, the patrons of the Midway will vote for the outstanding star each year. His or her picture will then be placed in especially designed panels in the Hall of Fame, which are located in each side of the auditorium.”

It continued, “A thing of beauty and a joy forever… that’s me all over!”… “Harold Rambusch, famous interior decorator surpassed himself designing my color scheme and it’s something ‘out of this world.’ You will admire my stepped ceiling, with the cleverly concealed indirect flood lights and those unusual lighting fixtures on the side walls.”

Today, Regal UA Cinemas’ Midway Theatre is a go-to destination for first-run films, but was also known for its Walt Disney cartoons and up-to-the-minute news.

Midway Theatre grand opening, auditorium, 1942. Photo courtesy of Dallasmovietheaters under a Creative Commons license.

Historically, operations shifted from RKO to Skouras to United Artists. It also transitioned from a single screen to a quad to nine screens, and in more recent times, digital advances and recliners were introduced.

One of the earliest Forest Hills patrons, Richard Delaney, who now resides in Cary, N.C., said, “I was six when the Midway opened, and my mom told me what a major event it was. It was a formal affair, with klieg lights on Queens Boulevard. Some celebrities were present.”

The Midway was an attraction upon entering. He said, “The ticket booth had a curved front and on top of the glass in gold was a map of Midway Island and surrounding islands. There was a long passageway with four wooden railings: two for people entering to see a film and two for exiting. There was quite a line of people waiting. Those were the days of double features. After you had your ticket torn in half, you entered a beautiful Art Deco lobby with a curved staircase to the mezzanine. Either side of the candy and popcorn counter were entrances into the main auditorium.”

He recalled a series of circular lights in the auditorium. “They had black backgrounds, but in the center were figures of dancing ladies. A glow would come from the circle surrounding the figures.”

Midway Theatre Art Deco Auditorium angular view.

There were uniformed ushers and usherettes who would accompany guests to their seat with a flashlight, if the film was already on, according to Delaney.

Additionally, he can still sense the matron walking up and down the aisles, ensuring that everyone behaved.

If not, he recalled, “She would have you come out of your seat and you would be asked to leave.”

On Saturdays in the 1940s, beginning at 10 a.m., a children’s show often spanned four hours.

“They would have a double feature, 10 cartoons and sometimes 10 to 15-minute serials, with one to two chapters each week, leaving you hanging in suspense. Sometimes they would show ‘Dick Tracy,’ ‘Flash Gordon,’ ‘Roy Rogers’ and ‘Gene Autry.’ Some would go for 20 chapters.”

Delaney also saw many films during the heyday of the Hollywood Studios system.

With his mother, he would see Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Ann Sheridan on the big screen.

Usually on a Friday night, there was a request for contributions to various charitable organizations, such as March of Dimes.

“The manager would make an announcement on the stage and ushers would pass canisters up each aisle for people to deposit a contribution,” he said. “They also sold war bonds or war saving stamps.”

Delaney is hopeful for a belated Midway extravaganza. “You can have a big 80th birthday cake in the lobby with a Saturday evening feature. It’s an iconic theater, so you can have a plane fly over Forest Hills with ‘Happy 80th Birthday Midway Theatre’ written in the sky.”

Local 306 projectionist Fred Hadley, formerly of Forest Hills, now lives in Boca Raton, Fla.

He reminisced, “I worked as a union projectionist in 1972 at the then-single screen Midway, which we salute on its 80th anniversary. I remember showing ‘Cabaret’ to full 2,000-seat houses. In those days, movies were projected using 20-minute reels of 35 mm film. The multiplex concept was just beginning.”

Forest Hills resident Patty Bugland believes that additional original art moderne features exist, such as above dropped ceilings in the auditoriums and the outer lobby.

“It was great to go with friends and wait for the lights to dim and the planetarium ceiling lights to twinkle. I always looked for Midway Island. This was the original ceiling of the whole theater when it was a single screen. It featured a map of the world and the constellations. This was as fascinating to me as the movies,” Bugland said.

She would attend every Disney animation and musical, including “South Pacific” and “West Side Story” and historical costume epics, such as “The Ten Commandments” and “How the West Was Won.”

Bugland continued, “Often, there was a double feature with that phrase, ‘Selected Short Subjects,’ which meant the forerunner of music videos or a very short comedy film, a short documentary or several cartoons. A video I remember most vividly was Ray Charles and The Raelettes performing ‘Hit the Road Jack.’”    

Midway Theatre lobby before approaching the grand lobby, 1942 Photo courtesy of Dallasmovietheaters under a Creative Commons license.

Another resident, David Gelman, said, “As with many of the classic buildings that are protected, I would be sad to see the Midway coming to end if it’s not preserved. It’s a quintessential part of Forest Hills.”

He recalls seeing classics such as “Goldfinger” and “Mary Poppins,” as well as waiting on a long line to see “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

Westchester resident Barry Werbin takes pride in how grand and huge the Midway is.

“In my days growing up in Forest Hills, there were no multiplex theaters locally. The Midway is an architectural gem worth landmarking. Just look at what happened to the Forest Hills Theatre where I have other memories. I feel thankful I got to come of age in such a special place,” he said.

“Preserving the beautiful art moderne architecture of the mid-20th century is important, since this is a period when New York City was still becoming a world-recognized center of art and culture, and the many periods that represent this evolution are disappearing in many neighborhoods,” said Forest Hills native Jackie Fishman.

She would like to see an 80th birthday celebration conceived as “a star-studded, old-fashioned, elegant event complete with showings of movies from 1942.”

Original Art Deco ticket booth, 1942 grand opening Photo courtesy of Dallasmovietheaters under a Creative Commons license.

“It would be fun to turn this into a week-long event that is open to everyone, with the opening day and night as an invitational party, and the proceeds could benefit a local preservation effort,” she said.

“The Midway seemed like a mini Radio City Music Hall,” said Denise De Maria of Forest Hills.

As a child, she attended a spin-off of the popular “McHale’s Navy” sitcom.

“Several cast members came up on stage afterwards, shook hands and gave out autographed pictures. Co-star Tim Conway was there and I got a picture. I was thrilled to meet a friendly celebrity, who became so well-known for decades,” she said.

Virginia resident Alison Turnbull Schoew, who was raised in Sutton Hall in Forest Hills, remembers the matrons and ice cream bonbons in little white boxes, but her truly special memory is attending the children’s matinee of “Big Red” in 1962.

She said, “The movie was the story of a lovely Irish Setter and her hijinks. After the film, a kind dad brought his own Irish Setter to the Midway and all of us got to pet it. I was too young to know that I wasn’t patting the star of the movie, and I carefully protected my petting hand from the rain all the way home.”

Marla Duffy-Eng, who was raised in Forest Hills, recalls promotional giveaways, as in the case of a plastic seat belt for Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”

Additionally, she said, “I remember special signage for big movies like ‘What’s New Pussycat?’ and ‘My Fair Lady.’ For ‘Cleopatra,’ the studio created a special marquee with giant letters in red and black.”

Forest Hills resident Amanda Killian said, “The Midway was the go-to for the big openings.”

Fast-forwarding to summer 1996, she had several teen friends who were employed at the Midway.

“I was invited into the projector room watching my friends load the reels and then watching the movies from a different vantage point. I would help them clean the theaters after, so that the staff and their friends could have private showings with unlimited popcorn.” For a celebration, she said, “It would be nice to see time capsule style photos of the Midway. You would really be able to see the evolution of the neighborhood.”

Her husband, J.P. Killian said, “I remember back in 1989, when I was excited to see ‘Batman’ with Michael Keaton, and so was the rest of my fifth-grade class. As years have gone by, I’ve seen countless blockbusters from ‘Training Day,’ ‘Fast and Furious’ movies and ‘Die Hard.’”

He also embraces preservation.

“I love the fact that the Midway is still around and people are still watching blockbuster hits on the big screen. For a celebration, it would be great if the Midway had an eighty-cent movie deal for a day,” he said.

“It is a shame other theaters in the area have not fared well, but I hope as the Midway turns 80, we as a community can keep it alive.”

‘The Play That Goes Wrong’: Slapstick comedy to die for

By Stephanie Meditz

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Photo courtesy of “The Play That Goes Wrong” via Facebook.

Everyone knows the saying, “The show must go on.” 

The players in “The Play That Goes Wrong,” who power through their scenes despite a hazardous set, missing props and unconscious actresses, embody it in a way that makes audiences howl with laughter. 

Written by Jonathan Sayer, Henry Lewis and Henry Shields, the 2012 play follows the Cornley University Drama Society’s opening night of “The Murder at Haversham Manor.” 

The set, however, is incomplete and falling apart in every imaginable way. 

The play begins with a pre-show of sorts in which stage manager Annie and lighting and sound operator Trevor tinker with the set, replace floorboards, put a stubborn mantelpiece on the wall and force a perpetually open door to close. 

They even solicit an audience member onstage to hold the mantelpiece in place and the door shut while the two promptly run offstage. 

Director and serious thespian, Chris Bean (played by Chris Lanceley), then assures the audience that his directorial debut will be a treat compared to the drama society’s former productions, such as the one-man show, “Cat.” 

The play within the play, “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” begins with Charles Haversham (Chris French) lying dead on the night of his engagement party to Florence Colleymoore (Maggie Weston).

Also present are Florence’s brother and Charles’ old friend, Thomas Colleymoore (Brent Bateman), his butler, Perkins (Adam Petherbridge) and his brother, Cecil Haversham (Alex Mandell). 

Knowing that someone in the group must have committed the murder, they solicit the help of Inspector Carter to find out whodunit. 

At the start of “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” the audience sees that Annie and Trevor have won their battle with the door: it will not budge when the players try to open it. 

Not only that, Charles Haversham is extremely mobile and sentient for a corpse – he visibly inhales after Thomas declares that he is not breathing and squirms when other players step on his hand. 

When Thomas and Perkins try to carry Charles’ body offstage on a stretcher, it rips, so the two pretend to carry it while the corpse slug crawls offstage. 

The defective set and players slipping out of character are laughable evidence of a production going south, but “The Play That Goes Wrong” especially succeeds in its hilariously convincing slapstick. 

During Florence’s interrogation by Inspector Carter, Thomas throws open the now functional door, knocks Florence unconscious and schleps her body offstage. 

Arguably the funniest recurrence throughout the show, however, is the bottle of paint thinner in place of scotch. 

Since the show must go on, the players are trapped in a vicious cycle — they drink the paint thinner, spit it out and comment on the high quality of the “scotch” while visibly recovering from the blow to their mouths. 

The spit take has long been used in comedies, but it especially works in “The Play That Goes Wrong” because the players still deliver their lines after each one to pretend nothing went wrong. 

The play’s other mishaps have a similar effect — they are funnier because “The Murder at Haversham Manor” is not intended to be a comedy, so audience members must suspend their disbelief and watch it as such. 

The audience laughs when Dennis, who plays Perkins, mispronounces “cyanide” as “ky-uh-needy” precisely because he is mortified. 

After intermission, a flustered Chris Bean begs the audience to stop laughing and take his play as seriously as they would “Hamilton.”

The audience laughs on, both because of the appropriate pop culture reference and because he is still somehow taking the play seriously after its disastrous first act. 

Overall, “The Play That Goes Wrong” is as funny as it is because people like to see just how far these players will go to ensure that the show goes on. 

Or, simply put, seeing people get hurt in elaborate and unlikely ways is plain hilarious. 

The actors in “The Play That Goes Wrong” are exceptionally talented, not only because they perform this riot of a show without laughing, but because they must be locked into two separate characters. 

The actors transform into their respective members of the Cornley University Drama Society, and then they must play that actor’s role in “The Murder at Haversham Manor” in a logical way based on their traits. 

The current off-Broadway cast does a stunning job of remaining locked into their roles – the only breaks in character are written in the script. 

Alex Mandell, whose character, Max, plays Cecil Haversham and Arthur the gardener, gives an especially vibrant and interactive portrayal of a lovable fool who is just happy to be in front of an audience. 

The set is also successful in its astonishing failure — the furniture falls apart at just the right time to leave the audience laughing out of incredulity. 

This is an impressive feat by the real-life stage crew because the deliberately malfunctioning set drives the comedic timing that dictates the play’s effectiveness.

Because the successive mishaps are meticulously choreographed, “The Play That Goes Wrong” is a difficult show to put on, and the current off-Broadway run at New World Stages is an immense theatrical achievement. 

To find out who killed Charles Haversham or, more likely, to see what else can possibly go wrong, buy tickets for “The Play That Goes Wrong” here or through Telecharge. 

Before the performance, make sure to grab one of the show’s signature cocktails — just make sure it isn’t actually paint thinner.

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