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Sunday, July 16, 2017

NJ REP big plans featured in Two River Times

The future home of the West End Arts Center at West End Avenue and Sairs Avenue in Long Branch. Photo by G. Van Benthuysen

By Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen

LONG BRANCH – Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas, the husband-and-wife team that founded the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch 20 years ago, were driving along Second Avenue in the city in April 2015 when she suddenly yelled ‘Stop!’ and he slammed on the brakes.

“I’m thinking I might have hit a squirrel,” he said.

Gabor Barabas looked over at his wife and she was looking out the window at a For Sale sign on the fence surrounding the closed West End School.

“Suzie turned around and looked at me and said, ‘This is our moment. How can we purchase this?’ ”

After placing the winning bid, they closed in May 2016 on the building they now are calling West End Arts at Sairs and West End avenues.

When they launched New Jersey Rep in 1997, Gabor Barabas had been a pediatric neurologist for children and young adults for 30 years. SuzAnne Barabas was an actress-turned-director.

When she decided to start a theater company he joined her to build a nonprofit, professional theater on lower Broadway in Long Branch, a blighted area with little foot traffic, no restaurants, that was really dark at night. People thought they were crazy.

In addition, New Jersey Rep’s mission was to develop and produce new plays by mostly unknown playwrights.

No Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. No Neil Simon comedies. No audience, right?

Twenty years later the 67-seat theater averages six to eight productions a year. It has 850 subscribers. It’s annual budget is about $800,000. Donors include the Geraldine R. Dodge and the Shubert foundations, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, plus Joan and Robert Rechnitz, another married couple who founded the Two River Theater in Red Bank in 1994.

That’s one reason why Robert Goodman, assistant director of the Office of Community and Economic Development for Long Branch, believes the Barabas’ have another hit on their hands with West End Arts in the famously funky section of town.

“They are known for developing a successful business on Broadway, and now they are taking that vision and broadening it,” Goodman explained. “They did not just go up one rung on the ladder, they went up five rungs.”

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