Reiter Leads The Historic Masonic Theatre Toward Recovery From COVID-19
The Man of La Mancha desired for society to be the way it was when knights sallied forth on quests much like Justin C. Reiter desires for society to be the way it was before COVID-19.
Charged with the daunting quest to lead The Historic Masonic Theatre to prosperity after the coronavirus pandemic prompted Governor Ralph S. Northam to issue “Executive Order 53” in March of 2020, an order that led to the theatre’s closing, Reiter, the executive director of The Historic Masonic Theatre, assumed his leadership positon in July of 2020.
Undaunted by the task, Reiter began his quest during the midst of the pandemic. Having The Historic Masonic Theatre closed at the time did not make his task of surviving the negative impact of COVID-19 any easier. In fact, the rules and regulations that were imposed by the Commonwealth of Virginia such as social distancing, the requirement for wearing masks, and the implementation of extraordinary regulations required for cleaning the facility resulted in the cancellation or the postponement of events that had been scheduled at the theatre in 2020.
Only three indoor performances were held after the theatre closed in April, The Virginia Opry’s “Christmas Show,” that featured Crimson River with Bill Wade, Jr. as emcee, the Alleghany Blues Society and the Alleghany Mountain String Quarter, all non-revenue-producing shows that were streamed live on “Facebook” without an audience in the seats.
Consequently, one of the theatre’s main revenue streams, funds derived from ticket sales and corporate sponsorships of the scheduled programs, dried up, forcing Reiter to rely more on writing grant proposals to receive funding to compensate for the lost revenue that may have been derived from those events cancelled or postponed, including Bill Pinkney’s Original Drifters and Michael Hoover and his Band’s “Memories of Elvis.”
Reiter, who was born in Springfield, Missouri but calls Louisville, Kentucky his home, attended Murray State University one year, 1983-1984, before transferring to New York University where he received his BA degree in technical theatre in 1987. He also attended the Center for Creative Leadership where he earned his LDP Certification in 2004.
From an early age, he began participating in theatrical productions, landing a role in Ah Wilderness at Missouri Rep at age nine. From 10 to 12, he performed as a chorister for the Kansas City Lyric Opera and from 15-18 as a chorister for the Louisville Opera.
In 2001, Reiter married Kimberly Ward, an actress, and they live in Staunton, Virginia. Ward, from Maine, grew up in Port Tobacco, Maryland. She is the House Manager of the Wayne Theatre in Waynesboro, Virginia. Like The Historic Masonic Theatre, the Wayne Theatre was restored before reopening in 2016.
Nearing his first year at the helm, Reiter observed, “I think it is going to take a long time for the industry to rebound.”
Continuing, he noted, “The theatre business is not easy in the first place, and it’s a lot like pulling the handle on a slot-machine.”
He noted that the outcome of each performance staged is uncertain and that after booking a show or an artist and advertising the performance, one can only hope people will come.
“I think people are itching to get out and do things, but I just don’t know if sitting in a theatre is one of them,” Reiter remarked.
Fortunately, the Masonic Theatre Preservation Foundation saw fit to build the Masonic Amphitheatre in 2012 while the theatre’s restoration was underway, and the award-winning facility has given the MTPF the advantage of having an outdoor venue where events can be staged while the indoor events that were postponed can be rescheduled.
The Masonic Amphitheatre has enabled Reiter to plan a summer season of concerts that features a variety of performers. Also, the Town of Clifton Forge is sponsoring a free movie series indoors. Both get underway in June. Those interested in viewing the schedules for the movie series and the concert series may visit www.historicmasonictheatre.com.
Reiter said, “I always tell our staff that hope is not a strategy, but this time I am hopeful our audience will return.”
One of Reiter’s greatest hopes is that people will be comfortable coming back into the theatre, and he hopes that once the pandemic has run its course that he can develop a larger audience.
He believes that his most daunting challenge has been to keep the lights on and to pay the theatre’s bills without the revenue stream that programming brings to the theatre.
Reiter stated that his greatest achievement as he nears the end of his first year on the job is that he has helped the theatre maintain the required New Market tax credit payments.
Having developed an outstanding resume in the theatre and in business prior to being hired to serve as executive director of theatre, he gained valuable experience by overseeing all business aspects of the 30-year-old-foundation that supports the Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia, including financial, regulatory, fundraising, strategic plan creation and the implementation and asset management.
From 2010 to 2013, he served as president and CEO of the Heifetz International Music Institute, Columbia, Maryland & Staunton. Serving as production manager of Networks Presentations, LLC, in Columbia, he prepared, supervised and budgeted National Broadway Musical tours, including Sweeney Todd, Hairspray, Annie, The Drowsy Chaperone, Rent and Lincoln Center’s South Pacific.
Reiter has received numerous awards, including several from Dayton, Ohio’s Old Theatre League, an organization that is comprised of a number of theatres in Dayton. More than one of those rewards were for directing and set design. While serving as general manager of the Arts Center Foundation/Victoria Theatre Association in Dayton, he was awarded the You Are the Star Award from The Victoria Theatre.
He recalled that he received one of his awards for the role he played in restoring the tradition of displaying the automated characters from the now-closed Rikes Department Store’s display windows during the Christmas season.
He remembered, “After refurbishing and displaying the automated characters in the display windows, the line of people who turned out to view those Christmas scenes stretched around the block.”
Reiter plans to use his organizational skills to involve the public and create new approaches to building a larger audience base. He expressed his desire to partner with the Clifton Forge School of the Arts.
Concerning such a partnership, Reiter revealed, “I am not sure what that would look like, but I feel like there are opportunities there.”
He continued, “Once we get back to full capacity, I want to explore bringing in performances that help area schools reach their SOL goals.”
Reiter added, “Summer-theatre camp is also something that I want to explore as well.”
As for improvements to The Historic Masonic Theatre, he envisions the addition of a counter-weight system that will allow productions to fly in drops and set pieces that will increase the facility’s capability to stage productions.
“I would like to see more working line sets in the theatre. The inability to fly in drops and set pieces really handcuffs us from doing a lot of touring theatrical shows,” he observed.
Reiter continued, “I think it will be important to keep up with the ever-changing technology of broadcasting from our theatre.”
He added, “Right now, our biggest challenge is maintaining a 115-year-old-building; it is an adventure every day.”
Built on the banks of Smith Creek that runs through the Town of Clifton Forge, the theatre’s bottom floor was severely damaged by the flood in 1985 and evacuated only a few years ago when another flood threatened the dressing rooms, concession area, and the Thomas P. Dean Underground Café that are located there.
Also, the theatre has suffered water damage recently from a malfunction in its cooling system, and mishaps like that have compounded the problems brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. Reiter estimates the repairs on the water leak will run in the neighborhood of $5,000.
Overlooking the stage where Roy Rogers and Trigger have performed and the auditorium where Lash LaRue once started his show by riding his horse down the aisle, the restored box seats will provide theatre patrons with an up-close view of performances that Reiter plans to book before the end of 2021.
Having served as production manager of such touring shows as Rent and Hairspray in both Japan and China, Reiter has also gained experience in musical theatre by being employed in off-Broadway productions such as Jelly Roll, Grand Ma Sylvia’s Funeral, Stomp, and Tap Dogs.
Unlike the Man of La Mancha, Reiter views his quest in a pragmatic way, one that he believes has the potential to vault The Historic Masonic Theatre to new heights in the world of entertainment once the pandemic has subsided.