[Matt Gray | For NJ.com] By Matt Gray | For NJ.com
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on September 16, 2016 at 9:44 AM, updated September 16, 2016 at 9:47 AM
West Deptford Twp-Since 1973, West Deptford Little Theatre has inspired many young people to pursue careers in the arts.
Little Theatre participants have gone on to Broadway, worked for Disney, performed on cruise ships and others have even founded their own theater groups. Some are actors while others work behind the scenes as producers or set and costume designers.
The theater group wants to continue entertaining local audiences and introducing kids to the stage, but they face a mighty challenge — they need a home.
In addition to its large summer theater program with about 150 students, the Little Theatre's small touring group visits nursing homes, hospitals and other area facilities all year long. They are preparing for a performance at West Deptford Family Fun Day on Sept. 24.
At its height, the summer program included 400 kids and as many as nine shows a season. This past summer, they put on productions of "Elf The Musical Jr.," "Peter Pan Jr." and "Annie Jr." at Green-Fields Elementary School.
Founded by Joseph J. and Susan White Schramm, the Little Theatre is now led by their son, Joseph W. Schramm and his fellow volunteers.
Thanks to township support — the group is a part of the township recreation program — they have one building on Crown Point Road where they store equipment, costumes and set pieces. Another, the old township library on Grove Avenue, had been used as a meeting and rehearsal space. They put on shows where they can find space.
Both of their buildings have declined steadily over the years, to the point where neither has running water, air conditioning or heat, Schramm explained. Because of these conditions, kids are no longer permitted in the rehearsal space. Apart from coming and going to retrieve set pieces and costumes from the Crown Point Road site, no one is supposed to be in the building either. Animals have taken up residence inside and the roof leaks.
"The fire marshal works with us as best he can," Schramm said. "They understand the situation we are in."
The township has no other options to offer at this point.
"The township doesn't own a facility big enough to house us," Schramm explained. "We don't have a home."
Now they are rehearsing in homes and backyards and sometimes use a room at the RiverWinds community center, but these spaces don't allow for full production rehearsals.
"If we had a facility that would give us that opportunity, we would be doing shows year around," Schramm said.
It began in a driveway
His father was an educator at West Deptford High School, teaching history, English and drama. His students wanted a place to act during the summer, his son recalled.
The entire story of this community theater group began in the driveway of the Cassabian home in 1973.
"They rehearsed in the backyard and basement," Schramm said. The first show was put on in the driveway. The Cassabian family opened up their house to us. They are still huge supporters of ours."
Of the thousands of kids and teens who have passed through West Deptford Little Theatre, many have gone on to successful careers in the arts.
Dennis Grundlock wanted to be a doctor before he joined the group in the late 1970s during his freshman year in high school. His experience with the group set him on his path to the theater world.
"It kind of changed my whole life," he said. "I've had a wonderful life in theater because of Susan and Joe."
Grundlock went on to work as a backup singer at the Grand Ole Opry, sang backup for Brenda Lee, worked on cruise ships, toured the world with six national touring companies, served as the national entertainment director for Spirit Cruises and as entertainment director for Six Flags Great Adventure before launching his own production company, MoonMaxx Productions.
Grundlock recalled that the search for a long-term home has been a long struggle for the West Deptford group.
Dancing for a cause
Little Theatre receives $2,000 from the township each year, but it needs much more than this just to cover annual operating costs. Raising funds for a new building will be an additional challenge.
"We just keep hoping and praying," said Laura Trace, WDLT vice president. Trace is putting her performing skills to the test to raise funds for the theater by taking part in Dancing with the Gloucester County Stars.
The Greater Woodbury Chamber of Commerce event raises funds for area non-profits. The event finale is Sept. 29.
"We're hoping that people will see the need to keep the kids active in something they love and enjoy," she said.
When it comes to finding a new home, they hope a benefactor will step forward to provide a site or help provide funds to purchase a home.
Schramm has toured privately owned buildings in industrial parks that would be big enough to house the operation — including room for storage, rehearsals and a small performance space, but the prices quoted so far as just too high. They need 25,000 to 30,000 square feet.
"We're talking big money for those types of buildings," he said. That price tag could run "upwards of $800,000," he said.
No one is offering a free building in return for a tax write-off, either. "Not in today's economy," Schramm observed.
It's not clear how much financial help the township will be able to provide in securing a new home.
Schramm understands that the township has its own fiscal constraints to consider.
"We know that they are behind us," he said of township leaders. "We have a very good relationship with them.
"It's just that we're in a time crunch. We need to make some moves and we need to make things happen as soon as possible."