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Riverbank Theatre moves its outdoor programming from Marine City to St. Clair

Free music, comedy and plays in Palmer Park

By Jim Bloch

The Marine City Commission failed to act, the St. Clair City Council acted with speed and the Riverbank Stage Festival landed an outdoor venue in St. Clair’s riverfront Palmer Park for this summer.

Kathy and Tom Vertin, who own the Snug Theatre, the Riverbank Theatre and the Inn on Water Street in Marine City, tried to get a special event request on the agenda of the Marine City Commission’s regular meeting on June 18. The couple wanted to use the vacant lot immediately north of their inn to host a variety of events from mid-July through early September. After a lengthy discussion, the commission voted against adding the item to the agenda.

Kathy Vertin was hurt and angry.

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“I’ve been dating Marine City for eight years and they broke up with me on Thursday,” she said.

Kathy Vertin immediately called Jeff Bohm, the chair of the St. Clair County Board of Commissioners, looking for help to find an alternative location. Bohm suggested St. Clair and helped pave the way for the Vertins’ request to be added to the agenda of an already-scheduled special meeting of the St. Clair City Council on June 22. Twelve and a half minutes into the meeting, the council unanimously approved the Vertins’ request.

The plan is to set up the county’s portable stage in Palmer Park and offer a full slate of free shows, July 18-Sept. 6.

Music, comedy, theater and youth camp

The Vertins’ goal is to host bands and musicians one night per week; ‘clean’ comedy another night per week; and three days of plays.

Vertin said she hopes to stage two to three plays, each running at least two weekends. The Sunday performances are likely to be matinees.

They will coordinate with Trice Hawkins, St. Clair’s recreation director, who already has booked bands on Friday nights, July 10-31.

The couple will also run their annual youth camps out of St. Clair. Kids may enroll for intensive weeklong theater classes that will culminate in staging a play on Saturday afternoons. The classes will run Mondays-Fridays from noon or 1 p.m. through 5 p.m. and there will be a charge to attend.

Two of the plays under consideration are the romantic comedy “Same Time, Next Year,” which was about to open in March when the lockdown started, and the musical “I Do, I Do,” which opened at the Snug in 2014.

Kathy Vertin said that Jim Hindman, a New York playwright and producer with whom she has collaborated, may be available to write something for this summer.

Culture as a springboard to commerce

The Vertins had rented the East China Performing Arts Center on Meisner Road for its summertime Riverbank Stage Festival, lined up sponsors and sold tickets for performances. But the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled their plans. The sponsors and patrons agreed to remain on board for the summer of 2021.

But what to do this summer?

“Business people have to be able to pivot now and pivot fast,” said Kathy Vertin. “I thought, Let’s take it outside.”

They hit on the idea of a free outdoor festival that would help spark post-pandemic economic activity in downtown Marine City, a half-mile strip of restaurants, bars and sweet shops along the St. Clair River.

Speedy permissions were critical to rescue the summer season. As it stands now, the Vertins will have to finalize a play, cast it, rehearse it, build the sets and promote it in barely four weeks to open on July 18.

As Marine City hemmed and hawed, St. Clair jumped.

“My mission has always been to use the arts and culture to drive tourism and local business,” said Kathy Vertin.

Her mission has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Marine City now supports two live theaters. The Snug opened in 2013 and the Riverbank Theatre debuted a couple of years later. Last year, the two theaters attracted 22,000 guests. The Vertins opened a hotel and restaurant in 2018.

Bohm told the city council that he had already lined up $50,000 in sponsorships for the outdoor theater project from DTE and ATT.

Full circle

In some ways, the Vertins’ dream of a summer theater festival in the Blue Water Area –one akin to the Stratford Festival in Ontario — has come full circle.

In 2017, they had an option to purchase the 90-year old former high school and middle school on Sixth Street in St. Clair, which was to be the base of the summer festival.

One of their biggest supporters was philanthropist Franklin Moore, Jr., the former president and chair of Commercial and Savings Bank in St. Clair. But Moore died early in 2018 and Jeff Katofsky, developer of the St. Clair Inn, acquired the school.

After a $30+ million renovation, which is still not complete, the St. Clair Inn remains closed and all work on school, which was supposed to become workforce housing, has ceased.

But the Vertins are going strong.

“This is for Franklin,” Kathy Vertin said of her new St. Clair endeavor.

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