Renaissance on Jasper Street
The South Camden Theatre Company celebrates 10 years
By Kate Morgan

On the corner of Ferry Avenue and Jasper Street in Camden, a building has borne witness to the rise, decline and rebirth of a city. During Prohibition, shipbuilders and factory workers would gather there, at Walt’s Cafe, where everyone knew a special signal would get you the real bootleg stuff. In the ’90s, the historical building was abandoned, left with boarded-up windows and a collapsed roof.

Today on that same corner, sunshine glints off gleaming windows next to posters for upcoming plays. Things have come full circle for Joe Paprzycki, whose grandfather was the proprietor of Walt’s Café. Paprzycki, 56, has transformed the property into an arts house – the South Camden Theatre Company, where he serves as artistic director.

Walt Evanuk is behind the bar at Walt’s Cafe in 1934;

Walt Evanuk is behind the bar at Walt’s Cafe in 1934;

“This story really starts and ends with my grandparents,” he says. “This building was my grandfather’s bar until 1967 when he died. My grandmother told me stories about how during Prohibition he’d sell ‘near beer,’ but the drinks for the regulars got poured from a special tap, with the real beer. There was a separate ladies’ entrance on the side for women to meet their husbands for a drink in the back room.”

Now, the concession area of the South Camden Theatre Company is a replica of the original bar, and photos of Walt and his family line the walls.

“The building is an exact duplicate of the bar,” Paprzycki says. “We wanted to restore the original building, but there was a hole in the roof and about five feet of black water in the basement. We had to demolish it.”

The new building, a bright, comfortable space anchored by a 96-seat black box theater, officially opened on Sept. 10, 2010. But the theater company had humble beginnings, first performing in 2004 in the basement of Sacred Heart Church on the other side of Jasper Street.

That first play, “Last Rites,” is Paprzycki’s story of Walt’s Café, and the industrial closures that put Camden on the path to destruction in the late ’60s.

After the show’s success Paprzycki began regularly producing shows in the basement of Sacred Heart. A few years in, he began fundraising to purchase the building across the street.

“I always had this weird obsession with the building,” he says. “When I was a teenager in Oaklyn I’d drive out here just to see my grandfather’s old bar. I don’t know if it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I know it all came from people’s faith. Because when some dope like me came up and said, ‘Hey, that boarded-up building over there should be a theater,’ people had the faith to say, ‘Yeah, OK, let’s do it.’”

An early believer was Pepe Piperno, a successful SJ businessman and chairman of arts and crafts chain A.C. Moore.

“We tore the old building down and started to build, and then the economy crashed,” Paprzycki says. “It was just delay after delay. Next thing you know, we’rehitting Pepe up for a bigger donation, and that got things going. Well, then we ran out of money again. By the time it was built, his donation was $750,000.”

“If Camden is going to come back, it needs to be a real neighborhood,” Piperno says. “That means it needs a theater, a gym, a community center and a supermarket. I couldn’t do all of that, but I could give them a theater. It’s something that’ll be there forever in that great neighborhood. It’s one of the shining lights of that neighborhood, and I’m really proud of that.”

To celebrate the 10th season, Paprzycki chose plays with a common theme. He’s calling it “A Season of Faith,” featuring Arthur Miller’s “Broken Glass,” John Pielmeier’s “Agnes of God,” Paprzycki’s original “Fortune Cookies” and August Wilson’s “King Hedley II.”

“This year I want to look at faith from different angles,” Paprzycki says. “It’s about having faith in God, a higher power, whatever you have faith in – but also having faith in dreams, in yourself and in other people.

“I selected these plays as a thank-you to our audience of 10 years,” he says. “‘Broken Glass’ is a great story about religion, and a Jewish family in America relating to what’s happening in WWII Europe. ‘Agnes of God’ is heavily Christian, and that’s my thank you to the Sacred Heart community. ‘Fortune Cookies’ is all about faith in fate, faith in friends, faith in the way life happens.”

The Waterfront South Theatre Company is now housed in what was once Walt’s Café during Prohibition

The Waterfront South Theatre Company is now housed in what was once Walt’s Café during Prohibition

The closing show, Paprzycki says, is his tribute to the theater company’s Camden neighborhood. “Wilson’s ‘King Hedley’ is all about faith in spirituality, in neighborhoods and communities,” Paprzycki says. “It’s about me saying thank you in too many ways to count, and it’s about being true to the founding vision of this company: If you have faith, dreams really do come true.”

December 2014
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