Photograph by Bob Rozycki
When people imagine their ideal home, it might be a cottage at the seashore, a cabin in the mountains or perhaps a well-appointed apartment in a favorite city.
The founder and artistic director of Lighthouse Youth Theatre always had something very different in mind, though.
Leading an informal tour through Standing Ovation Studios in Armonk on a recent morning, John Fanelli clearly delights in showing off the features that fill his theatrical company’s new home, from the acting studio that replicates a cozy theater to the memorabilia-accented music and vocal rehearsal rooms to the light-filled, 1,800-square-foot dance studio complete with the requisite piano and wall of mirrors.
“This has always been my dream,” he says.
Fanelli, a professional in the arts for nearly 20 years, trains students in theater, music and dance. For the past seven years, his award-winning Lighthouse Youth Theatre was based in Thornwood. Now, he is building on that program’s success by expanding its scope as it settles into the state-of-the-art studios.
Like any “homeowner,” Fanelli has experienced the pains of outgrowing his original space, searching for something new – and then spearheading renovations, more than once.
Lighthouse’s first home in Thornwood was a basic space of 3,000 square feet.
“I went in and painted the walls,” Fanelli says of the quick settling in. “We outgrew that space in a year.”
So he moved the company to a space twice as big, after a bit of sprucing up. That was five years ago and when the lease was up, Fanelli decided it was time for a major move.
“We wanted to find a new space and build it,” he says. “This is it. This is home.”
The raw space was ideal for Fanelli’s designs.
“It was an old manufacturer, warehouse-type thing. We ripped everything out.”
One might not notice, but the Armonk space is actually not as large as Thornwood.
“It’s smaller – 4,700 square feet,” Fanelli says with a smile. “But every inch is designed for its purpose.”
That means the acting studio (“really my favorite room, because it’s my room,” he adds with a laugh) is complete with theater-style seating and the latest in lighting and video capabilities.
It’s a place where students can run scenes or do monologues, learn about lighting – and how to audition and critique, as they are encouraged to “give notes” to fellow students.
Cameras throughout the spaces allow parents to monitor their children’s classes as well.
The entire project, Fanelli says, took about four months, with work concluding in recent weeks.
There is, Fanelli adds, room to grow.
“I have 1,200 square feet waiting for me, plus,” he says, adjacent space he hopes eventually to transform into more dance and music space.
“We raised a lot of money to put this together,” Fanelli says, showing an impressive plaque near the main entrance that recognizes supporters. “It took a lot to get this done. Everything had to line up perfectly.”
The new space, Fanelli adds, was the final ingredient in his long-term plan. He was always confident in his staff and was secure in his philosophy and approach.
“Now we just added this space, which is the missing element.”
It was created, he adds, in a way that it can remain home “for 20 or 30 years.”
And that would suit Fanelli just fine, as he savors his East Coast home base.
The Dobbs Ferry native lived for 11 years in California.
He received a degree in theater arts from the University of California, San Diego, and worked throughout California and New Zealand for the Metropolitan Educational Theatre Network.
Along the way, he met his wife, Nannette, who is now Lighthouse’s executive producer. They started a family, but Fanelli says he still felt the pull of his boyhood home and extended family.
Returning to New York, Fanelli developed Westchester Broadway Theatre’s Young Artists of the WBT and was artistic director for the Times Square Group before forming Lighthouse, which trains students generally from ages 4 to 19 through classes, workshops and productions presented in professional theaters rented out for the shows.
When we met up with Fanelli recently, he was on his way next to the Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford, where he is directing the current production, “In the Heights,” with a cast that includes some actors he already knew.
“We have former students that are in it with me, which is exciting,” he says of the show produced by Standing Ovation Studios.
“The only reason I started doing professional work was so my students would be around the professional actors,” he says. “There’s only so far I can take them, then they just have to sit in awe of the professional actors.”
The production, like Lighthouse and Standing Ovation, benefits from its strong relationship with its benefactors.
Fanelli gives special mention to arts patrons Sandra and Sheldon Mallah.
“They have the same feeling about the arts that I do,” he says. “When you add beauty to the world, it can only help.”
Fanelli says much like a young athlete might be prepped for a football scholarship, he trains students who might get to college on the basis of their artistic talents.
“That’s really my goal for these kids,” he says. “It’s not Broadway.”
Of course, he has former students who have performed on the Great White Way, as well as off-Broadway and in regional theater around the country.
Down the line, Fanelli sees people coming in and shopping at the Dress Rehearsal Boutique in the lobby, taking a fitness class (such as one planned for moms while their children are in class) or even renting out music studios to the guys Fanelli calls “old-men” bands.
As he talks about also expanding into that adjacent space and hopes for creating an amphitheater-style outdoor classroom, Fanelli smiles at how much has been accomplished – with so many possibilities ahead.
“I still can’t believe it,” Fanelli says. “I walk around here going, ‘Is this really my space?’”
It most certainly is.
For more on Standing Ovation Studios and Lighthouse Youth Theatre, 1 Labriola Court Armonk, call (914) 741-4205 or visit standingovationstudios.org or lytshows.org.