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Friday, February 3, 2023

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‘Celebrate St. James Past-Present-Future’ Fundraises to Save the Theater

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Celebrate St. James Past-Present-Future, a cultural arts organization, has been operating out of the Historic St. James Calderone Theater since its inception in 2017.

 It was in 2017 when the owner of the one-time Calderone Theater, Natalie Weinstein, endeavored to preserve the property that once housed her and her late husband’s business, which they purchased in the 1980s.

“The building is sort of a mystery,” said Weinstein. The building was believed to have been constructed around 1918, and in 1919, the building appeared on the county tax map with a marquee outside.

Despite ceasing to be a theater sometime in the 1960s, many vestiges of the old theater remain, such as the original tin ceiling. Additionally, the original stage is still intact, albeit now surrounded by walls instead of looking out onto an audience. When the Weinsteins were renovating the buildings, they came across numerous playhouse posters stuffed in the walls. Since then, community members have come with stories and artifacts of the old playhouse, now proudly displayed in the second-floor movie museum.

Not much is known about the building between when the theater went out of business and when the Weinsteins bought the property. The previous owner did construct hot tubs, though.

“Gradually, over the years, the building sort of morphed into what we learned later on, was not only a historic building because it was old… but later on we learned it was more than ambiance,” said Weinstein. “Later on, we learned it may have been the ghosts of the vaudevillians who had come to call in a way because the building took on another kind of meaning.”

Through the accidental discovery of the playhouse’s posters during renovations, the Weinsteins were able to link this property to the Calderone family. The family owned a series of playhouses, the most famous being the Hempstead Theatre. However, according to Weinstein, the Calderones do not acknowledge the St. James Theater as one that they owned. This may have to do with the Calderone family dynamics, as the patriarch of the family was supportive of the St. James location’s acquisition, while his children were not. Also evident in the old posters: William Collier (1864-1944) played at the playhouse and resided in St. James.

These discoveries, as well as Weinstein’s passion for the arts, prompted them to also preserve the mechanism that draws the curtains open and close.

Under their ownership, the theater had been a factory, office space, an emporium for small vendors, a consignment store and a tea room. Incorporated in 2017, with the help of Weinstein (the group’s first president), Celebrate St. James began to use part of the building for events before eventually utilizing the entire building.

Plans have been drawn up to redesign the facility back into a functioning playhouse with a second floor devoted to community cultural endeavors.

The first-floor rendering has the seats utilized as removable to create a large multipurpose room if needed.

The mission to preserve the theater is also supported by numerous local officials. However, despite the support from government officials, Celebrate St. James is still struggling to fundraise the nearly $1 million to facilitate the purchase of the property from Weinstein to the organization.

As of now, Celebrate St. James pays Weinstein – at a discounted rate – for the use of the property for art shows, the museum exhibit, and to house their offices. Nevertheless, maintenance of the building and taxes, as well as access to grant funding, are proving to be difficult hurdles to manage with the current arrangement.

If Celebrate St. James is able to facilitate the purchase of the property, the organization will be eligible for grant funding to preserve the property and for increased programming-– funding that is proving inaccessible as long as it remains in private hands.

Weinstein could easily sell the property to a developer but laments what that would mean for the community.

Coming off of the fundraising efforts of last year, the organization is only approximately one-tenth of the way toward its goal. Time is also of the essence, as Weinstein believes that by November, a more permanent solution will need to happen to ensure the longevity of the organization.

The Psychic Godfather

As a fundraising effort, Jason “The Psychic Godfather” Donegan will be hosting a pro bono event at the St. James Community Cultural Arts Center at 176 Second Street in St. James at 7:00 p.m.

Donegan is a clairvoyant and spiritual writer, the seventh[1]generation product of a psychic family. Additionally, he ran a tea room with his family in Brooklyn, gaining many celebrity clients.

His family’s tea room (Jason’s Psychic CJ Tea Room) was profiled by numerous Brooklyn newspapers and magazines. In one article of the Brooklyn Bridge (a magazine from the late 1990s), Donegan even made a believer out of skeptical columnist Heather Keets, with Keets writing, “he began to tell me things about myself that some of my dearest friends don’t know.”

Brian R. Monahan
Brian R. Monahan
News Editor for The Messenger Papers.