Riverside Center celebrates 20 years in business with its 100th production coming in July

It all started with “Oklahoma” in 1998. It was 20 years ago Monday that The Riverside Dinner Theater—renamed the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts in 2016—began evolving into a professional, nationally recognized regional theater. Over those two decades, more than half a million patrons have attended shows at the theater.

“’A Chorus Line’ will mark the 100th production,” said Patrick A’Hearn, Riverside’s producing artistic director. That play runs July 25 to September 16. “It’s really a remarkable milestone, and a tribute to our founder, Rollin E. Wehman.”

A 20th Anniversary Celebration will be held Sunday, June 24, starting with a VIP reception from noon to 1 p.m. for investors, special guests, and alumni.

“We’re really trying to get the word out to encourage anyone who has ever performed in or worked on a show at the theater to join us for this great event,” A’Hearn said. “Especially those from the early years. They provided the foundation for what we have become today.”

A lunch in the theater will follow, with a performance of Riverside’s current production, ‘Always … Patsy Cline,’ at 3 p.m. Discounted tickets will be offered to any alumni who attend. The general public is also welcome to see the show that day and participate in a cake cutting and champagne toast at 5:30 p.m.

“We plan to name the theater space in Rollin Wehman’s honor that day,” A’Hearn said. “I think he’s looking down on all this and is really delighted.”

“Thank you Mr. Wehman, rest in peace, and may you know it was a wonderful idea,” said Sally Struthers, an Emmy Award-winning actress now starring in “Always … Patsy Cline.”

“So many people have benefitted, have had a chance to learn their trade and earn their stripes,” Struthers said. “So many have been employed over the years working as waitstaff and behind the scenes—and hundreds of thousands of people have had the opportunity to see Broadway-worthy productions.”

Wehman, who lived in Fredericksburg from when he was 10 years old until his death at age 74 in 2014, was a Virginia Tech graduate in electrical engineering, receiving a Master of Business Administration from George Washington University. He was an executive with the U.S. Department of Defense and co-founder of an engineering firm specializing in human space exploration analysis.

But Wehman also had a strong interest in music and theater, and for many years led various church music ministries in the Fredericksburg area. He started a traveling show band that performed at the White House, and composed a religious cantata called “Jarius,” based on a Bible story.

“At the time [Riverside] was formed, Ron had a consulting company, and he put a lot of his own money into getting the theater started,” A’Hearn said. “His heart and soul was in this place.”

Nancy Huffine, Riverside’s group sales manager, started working at the theater 13 years ago—part time in the box office.

“You just have to admire Ron’s ability to rally that group of early investors, talking them into pooling their money to bring all this to life,” Huffine said. “It’s an amazing feat.”

Huffine said Ron always had service to the community in mind. The Riverside Foundation was initiated as a sister organization in 2006 specifically to broaden community outreach.

“Especially early on, it was truly a community theater—the people performing were all from this area,” Huffine said. “Ron started very successful children’s theater programs with a summer camp that encouraged kids to get involved and come to the theater—helping them realize that you, to, can do this.”

As time passed and efforts were needed to build the audience, Wehman started experimenting with supplementing the local talent with performers from further away.

Patrick A’Hearn, who performed in the original cast of Broadway’s “Les Miserables,” was invited to perform at Riverside in 2006 as Harold Hill in “The Music Man.” Wehman himself performed in that production as part of the barbershop quartet.

“The very first time we met, Ron asked me if I could ever see myself running a theater,” A’Hearn said. “He approached me several times about it. Finally he got me to come for good in 2011.”

Together, Wehman and A’Hearn continued to build Riverside, inviting more professional actors, strengthening the food service, improving the technology and building further bridges to the community.

“When I first came here as a performer, Riverside was bringing in about $1 million gross,” A’Hearn said. “Attendance has increased dramatically over recent years, with people coming down from D.C. and other places to see our shows—it’s become a destination. We’re now a $4 million business here.”

Struthers was first invited by A’Hearn to perform at Riverside seven years ago in “Hello, Dolly.” She has returned to star in four other productions: “The Full Monty,” “9 to 5,” “Mame” and the current show.

“I love coming to Fredericksburg,” Struthers said. She has performed in more than 200 theaters during her career in the United States and Canada. “I have so many friends here now I can hardly wait to see every time I come back. I’ve worked with some of the most fun, experienced, and extraordinary cast members—I have a lot of happy memory shows here.”

Struthers will be at the anniversary events on Sunday. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” she said.

“As much as we miss Ron, I’m proud to say that over the four years since his passing, his vision is just as strong as it’s ever been,” A’Hearn said. “We’re protecting his legacy and continuing it for him. Who knows what the next 20 years will bring?”