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December 14, 2017

The Belmont Theatre: The Magic Continues!


Children burst through the front doors as they rush to their Glee Class to sing and dance to popular tunes.
Vocalists warm up with four octave scales as they prepare for a rehearsal of Into the Woods.
Actors take their places in the Studio Theatre to rehearse their lines for Plaza Suite.
Dancers run up the steps to the Loft to change their shoes, getting ready to learn choreography for a production of South Pacific.
Community leaders gather in the conference room for the Governance Committee Meeting.
The Spotlight Singers finalize vocal arrangements to perform at a community celebration.
Volunteers hammer and drill on the Main Stage as they construct multiple set pieces.

All of this is happening on any given day at The Belmont Theatre in York, PA.

Are these people having fun? Yes! Are these people engaged in learning opportunities? Definitely! Are these people creating lifetime memories? Absolutely! This is the magic of The Belmont Theatre.

Formerly known as York Little Theatre, this is community theatre in the truest sense of the word. As The Belmont is now celebrating its 85th season, people from throughout South Central PA are engaged in creating major productions, as well as participating in countless workshops and activities.

Nearly closing its doors in 2012, this theatre is a model and inspiration for what can happen when a community joins together to achieve a common goal. People were determined not to let this theatre fail. The Belmont is a treasure, woven into the fabric of York County and making countless contributions to people’s lives.

It was in 1933, during the great depression, when a group of Yorkers had the vision to form this community theatre. In December of that year, they presented Lady Windermere’s Fan.  This was the beginning of many performances held at various locations.

As the Great Depression continued, Yorkers embraced the opportunity to forget their problems by attending shows, many of which were presented at the Phineas Davis Junior High School. During the 1938-39 season, YLT performed its first Shakespeare production, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This was also the first season that choreography was used in a YLT show. Attendance was at a record high of 3,492 patrons.

The Depression ended, but the country was soon at war. Women assumed many of the duties formerly performed by men. They constructed sets, ran crew and created lighting designs. YLT casts performed for local industry and entertained service men at area camps to build morale during this difficult time. They also raised money for the 6th and 7th War Loan Drives. In 1944, they raised $871,900 for the War Loan Drives, receiving a Citation from Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau “for patriotic cooperation rendered on behalf of the War Finance Committee of York County.”

When World War II ended, YLT wanted to have a home of its own. In September, 1945, YLT’s board approved the purchase and renovation of St. Andrews Parish Recreation Hall on East Prospect Street. This building had been the former home of the York Safe and Lock Athletic Club. The renovation goal of $25,000 included a large stage, a fly gallery, generous seating, offices and a rehearsal room. This goal was not met, however, and the theatre sold the building in 1948 for $15,000, which was $4,000 more than they had paid for it. Today it is the home of the Mt. Moriah Baptist Church.

Still renting space at the Phineas Davis Auditorium, YLT desperately wanted a home of its own. In 1949, plans were made to purchase a lot on McKenzie Street. Architect J. Alfred Hamme designed plans for a single-story theatre with 400 seats, dressing rooms and prop rooms. At a cost of $50,000, the Junior League agreed to help to raise funds, but in return, they wanted to build a larger building to be shared by both organizations. The cost escalated to $100,000, and the project never materialized.

In July, 1953, YLT signed a lease-purchase agreement for the Elmwood Theatre, a former movie house. Here, YLT finally had its own home. With aggressive fundraising, YLT took title of the building in May, 1956, seven years ahead of schedule.

One of the most enduring fundraising projects in York County history was launched in 1958 with YLT’s Italian Steak Sandwich Stand at the York Fair. This tradition continues today and is as popular as ever!

The 1950’s also brought YLT the legendary Artistic Director Elbert (Bert) Smith. The next 30 years were known as “The Golden Era”, with Bert as the heart and soul of YLT. His creative talents and tireless efforts to present high quality performances resulted in decades of outstanding productions. Bert’s many contributions include bringing Shakespeare to the regular season of shows, shaping Studio Theatre to be a space for untraditional productions and having children perform the shows for the children’s theatre. Bert will always have a special place in the hearts of everyone associated with this theatre.

In the 1960’s, YLT produced its first true musical, Knickerbocker Holiday. It featured the dynamic team of Wells Gemberling as Musical Director and Betty Dressner as Choreographer. Their combined talents ensured the success of YLT musicals for decades to come.

As YLT musicals became nationally renowned, publisher Tams Witmark offered YLT the opportunity to be the first community theatre to produce Hello, Dolly! Rita Vasellas starred in the production that also featured local veteran, Kenny West. Exquisite costumes came from New York City and magnificent sets were built. The production was a huge success! Many other blockbuster musicals followed and were highlights of the summers in York County.

YLT enjoyed decades of growth and success under Bert’s leadership. With his death in 1982, the York Community lost the epitome of what a theatre director should be. He will always be remembered as “a leader blessed with integrity, tenacity, a love of learning and the very deepest humility”.

In 1997, a 7,000 square-foot addition was added to the theatre. This $1.1 million fundraising effort was led by Henry Leader. The addition included a new costume shop, green room, dressing rooms, office space, additional backstage space and a Studio Theatre with seating for 110 patrons. Funding for the arts allowed performing arts programs to grow during this time.

But as competition for contributions increased, the theatre’s financial position decreased. Through the 2000s, the theatre struggled, eventually coming to the point of questioning if YLT could stay in operation. The shows and the building itself declined. By 2012, it looked like the end of this community treasure.

But the community decided it could not allow this theatre to close. What followed is a testament to the determination of individuals and what can be done!

The Board of Directors reorganized, making drastic changes in governance, staffing and operations. They launched a Capital Campaign with the goal of raising $350,000 to eliminate debt and continue operating.

Today, that goal has been reached and in addition, the entire building has been renovated. The theatre is thriving and operatin
g in the black. With a restructured Board of Directors, professional staff and a newly renovated facility, this theatre is producing shows that are gleaning praise from the entire Central PA region. Critiqued on Broadway World’s website, the theatre’s success is attracting talent and audiences from a wide radius.

Now there is a name change as well. Located on Belmont Street since 1953, The Belmont name pays tribute to the volunteers and staff who contributed so much to this organization. It also represents the professional quality of shows presented for people of all ages and interests.

The Belmont Academy is the educational component of the theatre, offering classes in a broad range of the performing arts. The Summer Camps are especially beneficial for children of all ages.

Each day the building is bustling with the energy of auditions, rehearsals, classes and meetings. Volunteers are busy painting scenery, sewing costumes, making props and rehearsing lines. Singers and dancers are learning choreography and reviewing their songs. Children are engaged in classes where they explore the many aspects of the performing arts.

What you see when you come to The Belmont really is magical!

It is the magic of what can be accomplished by people working together to be a part of something bigger than themselves. It is the magic of volunteers, companies and supporters helping an organization to bring joy to people as they learn life skills and make treasured memories. It is the magic of combining the talents of so many individuals and creating something that makes all of us proud.

So whether people want to be in the audience, on the stage, behind the scenes or supporting this organization, there is a place for everyone here. There is no end to the magic of live theatre at The Belmont!