Nestled in the historic harborside village of Northport on Long Island, the John W. Engeman Theater stands as a reminder that success is sometimes won by reinventing long-held standards. Fusing Main Street appeal with Broadway-caliber productions, theater owner Kevin O’Neill’s innovations in customer experience are upstaging the competition and packing the house.
There are traditionally three elements found at the heart of any business success story: a person who dreams big, a product that dazzles customers, and an innovative strategy that drives the vision. That’s just the ensemble responsible for the rise of the John W. Engeman Theater on Long Island, where the once-forgotten venue became a regional destination for entertainment.
ACT I: The Entrepreneur
From his childhood days in Brooklyn selling lemonade on the corner to investing in a Long Island theater, Kevin O’Neill has always had the heart of an entrepreneur.
As a teenager, he worked alongside his mother and father in their wine and liquor store. There he cut his teeth in business and learned about interacting with customers and setting sales goals. During his years at Fordham University, he earned a director position at the student deli and doubled its sales. After graduation, he took a challenging operations position at Salomon Brothers–an investment bank known for it’s high-risk, high-reward trading and demanding corporate culture–earning a coveted slot in their exclusive in-house training program.
At Saloman Brothers, O'Neill worked his way to becoming a Managing Director on the government bond trading desk—the heart of the organization. The young trader with the heart of an entrepreneur regarded his desk as his own business, refining skills along the way.
“Every day I picked up the phone 2,000 times, executed 500 transactions, and traded $20 billion worth of bonds,” O’Neill recalls. “It forced me to be a very quick decision maker and to trust my instinct.”
After some years working in the high-pressure environment and starting a new family, O’Neill developed health issues and had to reevaluate his career. He left the trading desk for his next venture as the founding investor and principal in a theater marketing company. It was there he would learn about an unassuming little theater in a cozy maritime town that was up for sale.
ACT II: The Venue
The John W. Engeman Theater that stands today is the third iteration of the structure. The original Northport Theater, which opened in 1912, burned and was rebuilt in 1932. After years of operating under various identities, ranging from vaudeville house to discount movie theater, O’Neill bought the building in 2006 and invested $3.5 million in renovations.
In addition to common restorations like replacing the leaky roof and overhauling the restrooms, O’Neill revamped the actors’ accommodations. As one of only three theaters on Long Island that conforms to the rules of the Actors Equity Association, the house was required to follow the same standards as theaters on Broadway. Rebranding of the old Northport Theater also included its new moniker, the John W. Engeman Theater, named in honor of O’Neill’s brother-in-law, who was killed while serving in Iraq.
ACT III: The Experience
O’Neill wasn’t a regular theatergoer when he entered the business, so he understood the need to create an experience for the masses that was so affordable and attractive that it would build loyalty in a way the marketing dollar couldn’t. He also knew a strong customer base could be built from people like himself, who had little theater experience, and from patrons of Broadway, who wanted a more accessible option.
In a four-pronged approach to what O’Neill calls “cultivating frequency,” the theater experience is becoming more accessible to the masses and turning the Engeman into a regional destination.
> Quality. Complementing spacious stadium-style seating, a state-of-the-art sound system, oversized restrooms, and an enhanced stage area, the John W. Engeman Theater also self-produces Broadway-caliber productions of the highest standard.
> Convenience. Particularly in contrast to traveling the 45 miles to Manhattan, patrons enjoy a seamless experience closer to home for a fraction of the cost— and valets will even park your car.
> Elegance. You won’t find theatergoers crammed against a linoleum bar ordering tiny drinks at intermission. Lending to the ambiance of John W. Engeman Theater are the elegant comforts found in some of the best venues, such as its wood-paneled cocktail lounge and custom glassware that can be taken into the theater.
> Fun. The appealing blend of Broadway musicals, dramas, and comedies combined with a delicious meal at one of the area’s many restaurants creates the perfect date night or social outing.
THE NORTHPORT HOTEL. O’Neill’s next move is a planned 24-room boutique hotel and restaurant on Main Street directly across from the theater. What is currently a dated office building will be replaced with a multi-million dollar, best in class structure after a series of regulatory approvals and the blessing of a community that safely guards its charm.
Slated to open as early as fall 2019, the hotel-restaurant will not only complement the theater experience, but it will also stand on its own to serve an area vastly underserved in lodging.
THE CO-STARS. O’Neill is quick to share credit with those around him saying, “I know what my strengths are, and I leverage them. But I know what my weakness are, and I surround myself with people who are better at it than I am.”
Armed with degrees in accounting and law and a lifelong experience helping run his family’s theater, O’Neill’s business partner Richard Dolce also serves as the theater’s artistic director. O’Neill recalls an immediate trust and mutual respect with Dolce, evidenced by how quickly they moved forward with the purchase of the theater and by the strength of their partnership since.
“I met him in December of 2005 and bought the theater six months later. People thought we knew each other 25 years,” O’Neill remembered. “Now I work to fill the seats and Rich gets them to come back. We’ve always known our roles very clearly.”
Also integral in O’Neill’s growth is the longstanding relationship he’s enjoyed with Ed Blaskey, Sterling National Bank’s Executive Vice President and Market President for Long Island. When O’Neill was looking for a trusted financial partner to help him navigate the hotel purchase and renovations, he reached out to Blaskey, who had recently joined Sterling’s Long Island division.
“The team that Ed assembled and that I’m working with on a day-to-day basis has been excellent,” he said of Sean Umhafer, Dan Liberty, and Lisa Congemi. “They are so helpful and transparent, and I look forward to continuing to build these relationships.”