Our Bob Thick
It's been a tearful week on social media for my many friends who are finding it hard to express the loss of Bob Thick of the Off-Broadstreet Theatre. I have been too verklempt myself. He meant so many different things to so many people. I worked at the Off-Broadstreet Theatre, or "OBT" as it was affectionately known, for 20 years, so he was my director and mentor, but he was far more than that. Because he and his wife and business partner, Julie Thick, treated all who worked there from 1984 to 2016 as family, we are all having a hard time saying goodbye. You can't really say goodbye because he will be with us always. To the OBT family, he will always be Our Bob Thick.
An evening at the OBT began with a ride down a winding country road, past farms and golf courses, to the picturesque village of Hopewell NJ. On your left as you drive down Broad Street is a cemetery dating back to the early 1700s. Make a left at Greenwood Av and you are at the theatre, surrounded by an old time pharmacy with window displays, a white church with a tolling bell in the steeple, a firehouse with engines outside, a tiny old post office, and a huge park with a gazebo. That was just the beginning of the charming atmosphere. The building had a country/art deco feel. It was a movie theatre in the 30's, but fell into disuse till 1984, when Bob and Julie painted it pink and started their unique "dessert theatre."
You were greeted at the box office by the bearded white-haired man with a twinkle in his eye. Bob then told you that Julie would show you to your table, sure enough she'd be right there waiting. The napkins and programs were the same shade of OBT Pink. Your friendly waiter brought you coffee, tea, or an ice bucket for the bottle of wine you brought. Then it was off to the dessert table for unlimited fresh fruit and a choice of 3 different cakes or pies. My favorite was Dark Side of the Moon. At the top of the show, it was Bob's famous curtain speech that customers and performers could recite by heart. Then they would present a small cast show that most in the audience were not familiar with. You would think that would have scared away many of their mostly older subscribers, but they all trusted Bob and Julie. Besides managing the staff and the business end, Julie would read hundreds of plays from which she would give Bob the best to read, then they would decide their seasons together. If it was a musical, or a musical review, they would have a live combo, and Julie was the choreographer. Bob directed the shows and designed and built the sets, mostly by himself. Mostly they were heart warming comedies or fast moving farces, but Bob wasn't above challenging his audience sometimes with some Shakespeare or Moliere. After saying goodbye to your waiter (after all, as Bob would say in his curtain speech, "the young people who brought you your coffee, did so out of the goodness of their hearts, and a token of your appreciation is welcome"), you would head a block down Broad Street to the Hopewell Inn for a toast with the cast. I always parked near the Inn before the show, because you knew that's were we would end up.
It was a true Mom and Pop operation. You went home totally charmed.
I first met Bob Thick in 1990 when he was looking for a leading man for "Lucky Stiff" (a show I'd never heard of. Of course they found it and now it's a cult favorite). I found the quaint theatre for the first time, and Bob met me there with an accompanist. I was 35, and was a little intimidated by this "older gentleman" with the stern demeanor. Nonetheless, I got the job. I didn't find out till later that he was only six years older than me. I soon found out there was a Santa Claus twinkle in the eye of this irascible curmudgeon.
Once you were part of the Off-Broadstreet family, Bob and Julie had their traditions that made working there different from other theatres. First, Bob never cast a show in advance. He would sometimes wait till the night before rehearsals started to call. He said this was to be fair to all the actors. Then there was an accelerated rehearsal schedule. Bob would block the whole show in one or two rehearsals. You did an average of 3 shows a week for 5 weeks. As a part of your contract, you arrived 2 hours in advance on show nights to help set up the silverware. Bob looked down on every performance from his perch in the light booth, so he would give notes from the previous night, and lead a vocal warm-up if it was a musical.
Then it was an hour off till curtain time, which meant getting ready in the love lofts. The "love lofts", you ask? Because the theatre was built for movies, there were just small lofts on either side. Enough for two or three people on each side, so with a large cast it got a little cozy, hence the name love loft. There were no facilities backstage, so when the first act ended you made a beeline to the front of the house if you had to go, so you could get to the them before the audience. It was all part of the camaraderie.
It was expected that everyone should go to the Hopewell in after opening night, where Bob bought everyone a drink, and gave his little thank you speech to everyone. This was my favorite part, the moment of triumph and celebration with your friends. It was also in your contract that you had to stay to help strike the set after the last show, then stay for Julie's pizza party. The youngest cast member would have to sweep the stage at the end, while the rest of the cast mocked them. Then everyone bid fond goodbyes. This little theatre in Hopewell was the first place many actors ever got paid, including some who went on to Broadway, TV and the movies. For me, it was a my home theatre. It was so convenient the years my kids were growing up. The waiters also loved working for Bob and Julie, and they did well. My daughter eventually was one.
That's a lot about the theatre, but the theatre says a lot about who Bob was. Before OBT, he toured the world singing opera, so it was always great to hear him raise his glorious voice in song, whether it be in church, or one of the times he performed in a an OBT show, like his Baker in "The Baker's Wife." He used his classical training to mentor young performers. When I started there I could barely pick out notes on a staff, soon Bob and Julie trusted me to sing three-part harmony while tap dancing. You see, a man who has a theatre brings together people who become friends for life. I can't tell you how many close friends I met at OBT. We lived, laughed, loved, and cried together. It was a sad day when they moved on. The new owners of "The Hopewell Theatre" totally renovated the theatre and now have art films and musical acts.
But Bob was much more than the theatre. I can see that by my friends' posts. He was family. I'm remembering the dinners with Bob and Julie, hitting golf balls with Bob at the driving range, a trip to the bar with the boys for a bachelor party, my 5 year old son playing a reindeer to his Santa at the children's show, Bob and Julie's annual New Year's Eve Party, not to mention Bob officiating at my wedding to Jen in 2012. I won't go on, because I think you see that Bob will be missed for many reasons. I could tell you many more theatre stories, but I will save them for a later date, for though Bob and OBT are gone, they live forever in the memories of any who were there. He belonged to all of us. He was Our Bob Thick, especially when he stepped in front of his audience with a twinkle in his eye, and they became silent at the sound of his voice booming, "Good Evening, I'm Bob Thick and Welcome to the Off-Broadstreet Theatre!"