Chappaqua doesn’t want for many things, but a dedicated performing-arts center at the hamlet’s heart always seemed like a bit of a stretch. Few locations could house such an expansive project, and zoning for a new structure would be virtually impossible. This is why the new Chappaqua Performing Arts Center (ChappPAC), which opened its doors this past fall, was such a surprising — and welcome — addition to the community.
Shuttered in 2013, the Reader’s Digest campus at 480 Bedford Road nearly met the wrecking ball before Summit Development and Greenfield Partners transformed it into Chappaqua Crossings over the last two years. A retail, office, and residential community, the mixed-use hub called for renovations of nearly the entire property, save for the attractive 425-seat Wallace Auditorium. This is where ChappPAC artistic director John Fanelli came in.
Prior to his work with ChappPAC, Fanelli founded Lighthouse Youth Theatre, as well as its parent company, Standing Ovation Studio in Armonk, where he remains the artistic director. Lighthouse grew to encompass hundreds of musical-theater students throughout the region and beyond, organizing them in plays such as The Wizard of Oz and Thoroughly Modern Millie. When Fanelli began renting out the Wallace Auditorium for Lighthouse performances in late 2014, it occurred to him that the venue had tremendous potential.
“I felt that we had to make sure this space remains intact, because you don’t find 425-seat theaters just lying in your backyard,” says Fanelli. “Especially this theater, because it’s so striking; it’s like a big, beautiful country playhouse in the middle of Chappaqua.”
In 2015, Fanelli teamed up with booking agent Scott Campbell of Soup’s On Entertainment and sent off a proposal for the space. Fanelli agreed to serve as ChappPAC’s manager in exchange for rentals of the stage. “We had this perfect barter situation, where I needed the space and they needed a person [to run it],” explains Fanelli.
Updating the theater was the next big step, a task that Fanelli found to be slightly less involved than he initially surmised. “Reader’s Digest built the lecture hall with a kind of theater-theme, which worked perfectly for us because it already looked great,” he says. “The seating was perfect, and even if you are in the back row, you can see quite well.”
However, the space’s hardware left a bit to be desired. “All of the equipment was really outdated,” explains Fanelli. “We put in all new lighting, as well as new speakers. Plus, I think another reason my proposal was chosen is that I have a lot of my own equipment, including a soundboard and a lightboard. I brought everything I have and put it in the theater.”
This doesn’t mean that Fanelli sees no need for future improvements. He hopes to expand the theater’s wing space, make a few minor structural upgrades, and update the center’s dressing rooms. “Michele Gregson and Tracy Stein formed a nonprofit called The Friends of the Chappaqua Performing Arts Center, and they’re trying to raise some money to do some of these improvements while we are up and running,” says Fanelli.
According to Gregson, chairperson of The Friends, the group is an all-volunteer organization comprising a board of directors and committee members from throughout Westchester. “We work closely with John Fanelli to determine what the needs of the theater are and how we can fundraise to meet those needs,” says Gregson. “We want ChappPAC to be a resource to everyone in Northern Westchester, irrespective of income levels. Our expectation is that it will be a destination and support the local economy, which benefits everyone.”
ChappPac also benefits Fanelli’s own work with Lighthouse Youth Theatre, as it will host all the troupe’s upcoming performances, finally providing the kids a stable base to strut their stuff. “I’ve always been a gypsy, as far as where I perform,” says Fanelli of his work with Lighthouse. “I’d be at Tarrytown Music Hall or Yorktown Stage, running around, trying to secure dates. It’s just so amazing to finally have one home for all of the shows.”
Fanelli hopes ChappPAC will become the “preeminent regional space for performing arts” by presenting a wide variety of regional and national acts. So far, it has hosted rocker Matt Schoenfield, tribute-band SoulShine, a production of Cinderella, a contemporary-art exhibition, and it will be holding a screening of fan-favorite Christmas film Elf on December 17, among several other events. On December 1, cohosts of the popular parenting podcast What Fresh Hell: Laughing in the Face of Motherhood will hold a hilarious “Moms’ Night Out.”
Even without ChappPAC’s innovative programming and devoted supporters, Fanelli feels that the center truly speaks for itself. “As soon as you walk into that lobby, you know you’re in an incredible country playhouse,” he says. “When people enter the theater and see all the seats, they have the same reaction: ‘I didn’t even know this existed! I’ve lived in Chappaqua for years, and I never knew this was here!’ I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve heard people say that.”