A budding actress, Gonzalez's daughter asked why Bayonne didn't have its own performance space. "My daughter was in the eighth grade and said that only the schools have a place to put on plays," he said.
Gonzalez, who is an award-winning playwright, director and educator, thought it was a great idea to build a theater for the city, and spent the last few years looking for a place to put it.
"We spent five years trying to find a place where we could put a theater," he said. "But we really got serious about looking about three years ago."
Gonzalez has a rich history in community theater as artistic director of the Theatre Group in Bayonne, as Playwright in Residence with the Waterfront Ensemble in Hoboken, as a board member of the Park Theater in Union City, and as a professor of Visual and Performing Arts at New Jersey City University. His plays have been produced throughout the United States, and he currently has a play called Elephant Girls running off-Broadway.
He's taught theater on several levels, including at Bayonne High School. He is directing this year's Passion Play at the Park Theater.
Greg Bukshowany, who owns Crystal Clear Productions, Inc., a Bayonne-based audio-visual production company, has partnered with Gonzalez to help make the dream a reality.
"I thought this was a great idea and that this part of Hudson County needed something like this," Bukshowany said.
Finding the perfect location
The pair came up with several places to install a theater during that time, from an old furniture factory to a former valve company factory. After getting his hopes up over several good possibilities, Gonzalez, with the help of Bukshowany and several other partners who bought into his dream, finally opened the doors on The Arts Factory on Avenue E, in what formerly served as the Ukrainian National Home.
The two men had found a location that was even more ideal than they had dreamt, complete with parking for more than 50 cars (not to mention the two municipal parking lots within a block), a one-block walk to the 22nd Street light rail station, and an easy drive from the New Jersey Turnpike, Route 440, and other major roadways.
Michael O'Connor, executive director of the Bayonne Economic Development Corporation, suggested that they look at the Ukrainian National Home, which needed a new tenant.
In this, Bukshowany proved particularly useful since his family had been members of the home, and the facility's management became very receptive to their offer because of this former association.
"Other people were interested in renting the space, but didn't connect with the congregational committee the way Greg did," Gonzalez said.
The facility also provided something neither man expected, a liquor license and a downstairs lounge that they intend to use as a performance café for a variety of music - but most especially blues and jazz performers.
"The other locations we looked at did not have the café," Bukshowany said.
The cabaret, which has a large oval bar as well as a grand piano, will serve as an evening gathering place for music fans, with a variety of acts planned seven evenings a week, 365 days a year.
The café was a hit with area musicians even before it opened, with some of the top performers in jazz and blues lining up.
A close friend of both men, Dennis Argul, is serving as the café's booking agent. A musician and music teacher, Argul said he has been in contact with some of the top names in entertainment, and expects the café to be a venue for impressive talent for a long time.
While the theater is nonprofit, the café is not - yet both men see the café as becoming a financial vehicle that will allow The Arts Factory to provide a range of services and still manage to pay the lease.
Off of the café is a lounge area they call The Green Room, where people can sit, talk, or watch one of the numerous flat-screen televisions. This will also serve as the waiting area for bigger-act performers scheduled to go on upstairs.
Opened last weekend
Although they had hoped to open on St. Valentine's Day, they managed to open the doors the final weekend of February.
Gonzalez said he hoped to put on five plays a year in the upstairs performing space, where as many as 250 seats can be set up for a show. Permanent seating may be installed later as funds permit. While the facility can handle many more seats, Gonzalez said he wants it to retain its intimacy, allowing audiences to regain the kind of theater experience that was prominent in the past.
But the space can also be used to put on concerts or special performances.
The theater expects to open its first theater production in October with a play comparable to Man of La Mancha or Jekyll and Hyde.
The plan calls for a mix of "American standard" plays, with two or three musicals each year.
An educator in the arts as well as a writer, Gonzalez envisions the facility as a kind of arts center for the community, where other groups might come to perform and where people can come to learn about their craft through various classes.
"We want this to become the jewel of the community," Gonzalez said.
Both men see the center taking on an increasing role in the arts as time goes on, not only serving music and theater, but also comic performance, lectures and expositions.
Gonzalez believes that local dance schools will rent space here for dance recitals, and he sees children's theater as a possibility for Saturday mornings. He even suggested that in between theatrical events the center might serve as a place to view classic cinema, such as horror movie expos.
One of the performers who appears to be sold on the place is jazz vocalist Roseanna Vitro, who will not only likely perform at the center in the near future, but also may bring her students to perform as well. Ritchie Havens is one of the acts that they hope to book shortly, as well as a host of other well-known and lesser-known talents.