AN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE ON DANTE HALL THEATER OF THE ARTS:
A THRIVING COMMUNITY TRADITION
Dante Hall Theater of the Arts is inextricably tied to the Italian Ducktown neighborhood in Atlantic City where it is located and to the residents who live and grew up there. The theater is both a poignant symbol of the past and a burgeoning cultural touchstone for the surrounding community dedicated to retaining its unique identity. Dante Hall’s history is really all about its present—it is much more than a stellar performing arts venue, one of South Jersey’s best; it is the very heart of Ducktown.
Located on Mississippi avenue, just 1 1/2 blocks from the casino strip, Dante Hall Theater of the Arts could not be farther from one of the casino’s many popular entertainment showrooms. As Atlantic City’s only fine performing arts space, this is obvious as soon as one steps inside the building and recognizes that the magnificent architecture is more akin to that of a cathedral. This stylistic homage is not by accident as Dante Hall, which sits adjacent to St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church, originally functioned as the parish’s social hall.
The theater proper was originally built in 1926 as an addition to St. Michael’s to serve its growing congregation as a religious school and community center and was comprised of a large room with a balcony, wood floor and a small stage. It hosted spaghetti dinners, amateur performances and school basketball games with notable childhood participants, NBA Coach Chris Ford and New Jersey Senator William Gormley (R-2nd). During the 1940s and 50s, the hall most significantly housed the St. Michael’s Opera Company, delighting the local Italian populace. After acting for decades as the hub of community life, the hall fell into disrepair once the parish school closed in the late 1980s. It was used for storage until a new pastor imagined its redevelopment under a new guise.
Father Michael D’Amico left his teaching position at Holy Spirit High School in Absecon to become St. Michael’s pastor in the late 1990s. He spearheaded Dante Hall’s massive renovation with the support of the Ducktown Revitalization Association and a grant from Atlantic City’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. Dante Hall’s reconstruction took 18 months; it was rededicated as Dante Hall Theater of the Arts on Columbus Day 2003.
While a new era for Dante Hall began, its lavish exterior and interior design harkened to a bygone age. Supervising architect Thomas Sykes of SOSH Architects, Atlantic City, recalls, “The final design revolved around the Italian identity of the parish and the great tradition of St. Michael’s…it’s a contemporary version of classical Italian design.”
Dante Hall’s gleaming three-story granite façade is visible from blocks away. The exterior loosely resembles an Italian renaissance-style palazzo and incorporates intricate details like the heavy carved glass and gold tone metal entrance doors, elaborate front balustrade and bas relief bust of Dante Alighieri, the theater’s namesake, on a second storey plaque. Faux Doric columns run the height of the second and third stories which are evenly interspersed with large rectangular and arched windows.
The beautiful interior merits equal mention—earth toned Italian marble floors, rich mahogany wood paneling, brushed bronze wall sconces, raised acanthus patterned wallpaper and carpeting all enhance the rich Tuscan motif. Huge, elegant statues of tragedy and comedy flank the stage which is fronted by weighty green and gold trimmed curtains. Lining the seating area is a stunning series of eight vibrantly colored stained glass windows that depict the creative genres of music, literature, dance, drama and painting. They were created by Egg Harbor Township artist Michael Irvin who utilized a novel manufacturing process that allows for their maximum transparency. Borrowing from the Italian renaissance painting tradition of incorporating patron portraits in the composition, the windows cleverly include likenesses of important figures in Dante Hall’s history like Father John Quaremba who founded St. Michael’s Parish in 1904.
These charming references to the past shouldn’t obscure that Dante Hall Theater of the Arts is a truly modern, thoroughly ADA compliant facility. It’s state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems enhance the audience experience, already elevated due to the outstanding acoustics and intimacy of its 243 seats. This unique venue presents an eclectic array of performances including classical and world music, opera, plays and children’s shows by emerging artists, professional entertainers and regional production companies. During June 2006, Dante Hall will feature its first play, “Over the River & Through the Woods” which tenderly and humorously chronicles the lives of a multi-generation Italian-American family.
Chairman of the board Frank A. Barbera, an area real estate developer whose grandfather founded the legendary Barbera’s Fish Market on the corner of Arctic and Mississippi Avenues reasons, “As long as we put on good productions, and people are satisfied with the shows, we will succeed…if people come once, they’ll come back.”
Dante Hall is indeed flourishing because audiences of all ages enjoy its offerings–people from the neighborhood who know what it has meant to their community, and people from the nearby cities and region who are discovering its splendor anew. A compelling nostalgia surrounds Dante Hall Theater of the Arts; it is palpable at each performance and visible in the faces of all its visitors who seem glad to be a part of such a remarkable Atlantic City institution. The performing arts remain at home in Dante Hall, returning a proud tradition to Ducktown for posterity.