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Oakes Center Plays Host to Philanthropy and the Arts

Former Morris Avenue Church was converted to a theater.

Perhaps you drive on the east side of Morris Avenue, away from downtown and between Overlook and Orchard Avenue. Perhaps you've said to yourself, "What is that castle-looking building with the red door on the corner of Russell Place?" It is the Oakes Center, and it is a hub of nonprofit organizations in Summit. The Oakes Center plays host to not one but two theater companies, as well as charities and support groups.

Some of the Oakes Center's tenants are the Stony Hill Players, South Mountain TheaterWorks, Summit Helping Its People, Bridges Outreach, the New Jersey headquarters for the Kiwanis and five different Alcoholics Anonymous groups. The Tiger Baron Foundation, a philanthropic organization that provides money to charities, owns the building. The two requirements to have an office in the Oakes Center are: an organization must be a nonprofit; and it must demonstrate some benefit to the community.

"Tiger Baron provides facilities to do good works," said Oakes Center operations manager Rick Roberts.

According to Randy Parker of the Stony Hill Players, the building was originally the Oakes Memorial Methodist Church, founded in 1913. In the 1980s, Oakes Memorial merged with the United Methodist Church, and the church became the Oakes Memorial Outreach Center.

In 2002, the Methodists were preparing the sell the building, and could not guarantee its tenants that they would be allowed to stay past 90 days. The Stony Hill Players decided to leave at that time because 90 days was not enough for a play season, and led a "nomadic existence," said Parker. Luckily, the president of the Tiger Baron Foundation was both a friend of the Stony Hill Players and a historical preservationist, so the company heard about the Center's impending sale and decided to buy it in order to keep its original purpose of housing nonprofits intact. Tiger Baron tapped Roberts, then the president of the Stony Hill Players, to be the facility's manager.

"I'm in the unique position of being both a tenant and a landlord," said Roberts, who is still with the Stony Hill Players as its treasurer.

Roberts and Tiger Baron then went to work in updating the Oakes Center, which had not been renovated in 30 years. Among some of the changes were new bathrooms and ADA compliance issues. Best of all, the theater, once the church's sanctuary, was greatly enhanced; the new owners added a stage, removed pulpits and altar rails, and installed a lighting system. The theater now holds about 180 people.

The theater still presents unique challenges to those wishing to stage performances. The stage is irregularly-shaped and it has no Proscenium or curtain. But, says Parker, the space is beautiful, the acoustics are amazing, and it's good to be home again.

"Every theater is different," he said. "Directors and set designers must…take advantage of the space provided,"

The Stony Hill Players began casting for its all-youth production of Bye Bye Birdie, produced by Parker and directed by Jayne Myers, on September 10. It will open on December 10 and run until December 19.

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