Singing and dancing siblings who have brought productions of “Cinderella,” “White Christmas” and “The Wiz” to Bethlehem’s Charles Brown Ice House complained to City Council Tuesday that they are being stopped from doing another show in the city-owned performance center on Sand Island.
The five members of the Gilbert family of Palmer Township, who have been performing together as “Sing for America” since 2005, stood before council to say the city and Pennsylvania Youth Theatre are keeping them out of the Ice House this summer.
Taryn Gilbert, the oldest of the siblings, explained “Sing for America” performs at many different kinds of events to raise money for local families that have a parent serving in the military.
She said two years ago they started doing “full-scale, quality theatrical productions” in the Ice House. Their first show was “Cinderella” in the summer of 2011, then “White Christmas” and, last summer, “The Wiz” -- with a 48-member cast.
“We shared the space with the Pennsylvania Youth Theatre,” she said, adding that organization holds summer acting camps for children.
“Sing for America” wanted to do another Christmas production last December, but learned Pennsylvania Youth Theatre –PYT-- had rented the Ice House.
Jorne Gilbert said when they called the city to book the Ice House for three weeks in July, they were told the entire month is booked by PYT. They changed their dates to three weeks in June, but were told the same thing. “We were told they had booked almost the entire summer,” he said.
When they tried to book dates for 2014, “we were told the Ice House has entered into a tentative ongoing contract with PYT (and) we would not be able to rent the Ice House for any of our future theatrical performances,” said Jorne Gilbert. “This contract does not allow us to book our dates or even share the space.”
He said they reached out to PYT but it “is completely unwilling to share the space.”
“They are completely unwilling to work with us,” added Taryn Gilbert.
The Ice House is a public facility and should not be booked up by any one organization for an extended period of time, said Tasia Gilbert. “All we are asking for is a three week-span of time to put up our sets, dress rehearse and then run our show.
“The Ice House is such a great place for us because, over the years, we have gathered a following here in Bethlehem."
Teara Gilbert said kids from all different walks of life participate in their productions, including many who otherwise might never have had a chance to perform on stage –offering them a positive influence and outlet.
She said many students from Bethlehem’s three high schools have participated, as well as high school students from Easton and Allentown. Council was told many of those students have little parental involvement or support. And that, unlike PYT, students do not pay to participate.
Jewel Gilbert said “Sing for America” believes theater is for everyone, not just those who can afford high-priced tickets. He said its tickets are $15, only $10 for seniors.
“We believe ‘Sing for America’ works to better this beautiful Bethlehem community,” said Tasia Gilbert. “All we are asking for is a chance to continue this work.”
Council president Eric Evans told the siblings they do fantastic work and promised council will see what it can do to work something out.
Two city residents at the meeting spoke to support the young performers.
William Scheirer said he saw the Gilberts’ production of “The Wiz” and called it “an unforgettable experience.” He said the city and council should do whatever they can to help “Sing for America” put on more shows.
Mary Pongracz, a retired music educator, said any opportunity to put a child on stage to perform in front an audience “creates a culture within that child that will carry him through life.”
Pongracz added: “These young people are doing something that makes our country great” by uniting performers of diverse social and economic backgrounds. “To deny them the opportunity to present to people of this community that which music can give to the world is an absolute atrocity.”
After the meeting, council member Karen Dolan spoke with the siblings and expressed optimism the problem will be resolved.
“I am very interested in looking into this because the Ice House was dedicated as a public resource,” said Dolan. “I’ve been to shows there by 50 different organizations in my 25 years here in Bethlehem. It’s hard to imagine it not being available for three weeks at a time for a different theater group besides just one. What’s changed? And, if it’s a significant change in the use of a well-known public building, why wouldn’t City Council be aware of that change?
“I have a difficult time understanding why a positive youth organization that has so much success theatrically in the city can’t have access for three weeks in a public building in the city of Bethlehem. That doesn’t make sense to me.”
Dolan said PYT does not have an exclusive lease with the city to use the Ice House.
Also during Tuesday night’s meeting, council honored Wayne Bonney, who has retired after 25 years with the Bethlehem Fire Department.
Bonney started in 1988 as a firefighter. He has been a lieutenant, a captain and assistant fire chief.
A citation read by Evans said Bonney assisted thousands of Bethlehem residents during his fire-fighting career.
Bonney, who was at the meeting, said he was honored to serve the city. He told council no city firefighters lost their lives in the years he worked for the department, but added there were “a lot of close calls.”
He told council “a lot of people don’t even realize we have a paid fire department in town because we usually keep the fires so small. Nobody realizes how effective we really are, how much work we are doing and the number of runs we make.”
A public hearing was scheduled for 7 p.m. March 19 in Town Hall on a proposed amendment to the zoning ordinance that would provide protection from demolition to landmark and historic resources not located within designated historic districts. The city’s planning commission unanimously has voted to recommend City Council adopt the change.
Resident Stephen Antalics told City Council the number of “regulars” who routinely attend its meetings has diminished dramatically because council does not respond to questions asked about issues that should be addressed.
When people in the audience ask council a substantive question, Antalics said, “You are obliged to answer them. That’s your job as a public servant, to serve us. We don’t serve you. We elected you.”
Those who stand to address City Council are allowed five minutes to speak, more than some other local municipalities allow for public comment. And they can actually watch an electronic timer facing them so they know exactly how much time they have left.
Antalics said council once had no time limits on how long the public spoke at its meetings, adding it was up to council “to gavel them down” if they were out of order. He said a 12-minute limit was placed on public comments and now it’s down to five minutes.
He maintained: “Council is losing interest in what we have to say.”