When Laurie Walton first came to The Riverdale Y, she had one simple question — why didn’t children have a place to perform theatre?
At the time, Walton — an actress and singer who had transitioned into working for a talent agency after deciding she wanted to spend more time with her children — was looking for that space because her daughter was interested in acting.
Little did she know that The Y would offer her a chance to build that herself, resulting in a home where she could nurture young actors, including her daughter and son.
“My initial intention was to find other kids like my daughter and really train kids to be Broadway actors,” Walton said.
“But then, I believe early on, I found that (most of the kids) would not be pursuing it, but they had this feeling of a connection that was really important to them.”
Now, 18 years later, the founder and director of Riverdale Performing Arts Center is being honored for her work at The Y during its annual Broadway Gala on June 17. The number 18 is considered special in Jewish tradition, as it means life.
When Walton found out she was being honored, she assumed it would have happened later in her time at The Y — perhaps when she reached her 25th anniversary. Or was planning to retire.
“I guess I just wasn’t quite ready for it yet,” she said.
It took a little bit of clarification from The Y for Walton to see the reasoning behind their decision.
“They explained that the really deep meaning of (18) is that it means life and that they wanted to honor me for bringing light to The Y 18 years ago when I started bringing so many young people into the Y,” she said.
“So when they tell it to me that way, I have to say ‘yes.’ But I guess I’d rather honor the kids who’ve been in the program.”
Still, Walton is humbled and honored by being the focus of this year’s gala and while it might be a little weird for her to see her face plastered on posters around The Y, she’s focusing on prepping for the gala.
Now in its sixth year, The Riverdale Y’s Broadway Gala is a fundraiser for its Riverdale Performing Arts Center. Guests are encouraged to donate, and also are treated to a play featuring actors who work on Broadway.
This year, they’re performing “Guys and Dolls,” the 1950 musical about New York’s fictional world of gangsters, gamblers and other unforgettable characters.
“We found that a lot of friends and peers, and friends of friends who are Broadway actors are extremely generous with their time and their talents for things like this,” Walton said, “because it brings them back to what made them want to be actors in the first place.”
The choice to perform “Guys and Dolls” this year was to “do something that actors may not get a chance to do with frequency,” Walton said.
Since the actors have busy schedules, Walton said they come in to rehearse maybe once or twice before the ensemble performs together the day before the gala with a 21-piece orchestra.
“The whole thing is a challenge because we’re really trusting that people will do the work they need to do to be ready,” Walton said. “When you know you have one rehearsal with that gigantic orchestra.”
But Walton, who also will be part of the cast as Miss Adelaide, isn’t nervous about this, especially when actors will have the script available at their fingertips on stage.
When Walton looks back on the last 18 years, she thinks about all of the ways in which her position at The Y has challenged her to look at young actors differently, and how they’ve all benefited from learning to be supportive of each other, while also having a place to belong to.
“It became very obvious to me after the first two years, that it was about so much more (than acting) because I would see a kid come in here who would seem sweet and have a pretty voice, but was so painfully shy,” she said. “And after two shows, or three shows, they blossomed into this far more self-confident version of themselves and feeling like they had a place where no one was judging them.”
Walton didn’t anticipate the bonds she would create with the children.
“I never thought I would be in that position where someone was talking about very serious issues in their home life, or in their family life, or in their life, and it’s been an interesting journey for me,” she said. “It’s been extremely rewarding on those levels.”
As Walton looks toward the possibility of another 18 years at The Y, she hopes her legacy “continues well beyond” her time there.
While she’s still in charge of the performing arts center, she hopes to grow its music program, acquire more space to do bigger shows, potentially produce a show where members from The Y’s senior center can work with the kids, and eventually create a theatre program for children with special needs.
As of right now, however, she acknowledges “it’s taken a village of people” to make the performing arts center a reality.
And as she looks ahead to being honored for her own work, she wants to remind her team of one thing: “In being honored, I hope that they know I’m honoring them too.”