Majestic Theater’s founding executive director takes his final bow
By Alex J. Hayes
Downtown Gettysburg is a vibrant community with a variety of shops, restaurants and entertainment venues.
The scene was much different 30 years ago.
Back then, many of the stores were focused on the Civil War. The historic Lincoln Train Station was shuttered. Most restaurants were dark establishments with limited menus.
Gettysburg College knew it needed to liven up the borough to attract students and their families. It purchased and rebuilt the Gettysburg Hotel in the 1990s and committed to a similar restoration for the adjacent Majestic Theater.
To accomplish this goal, the college needed someone with a magnetic personality, keen business acumen and a strong pulse on the entertainment community.
During a nationwide search, the perfect candidate was discovered in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Jeffrey Gabel was in his fifth year managing The Music Hall, which opened in 1878. He loved the job, but Gettysburg was closer to his hometown of Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, and offered him the opportunity to live closer to his
Wearing what became his trademark bow tie, Jeffrey raised the curtain on a new act in life in 2003. In December, the 73-year-old will take his final bow on the Majestic stage and begin his new role as a retired showman.
Jeffrey began his job as Majestic’s founding executive director two years before the college planned to reopen the storied theater. His first responsibility was to raise money—and a lot of it.
Turning a 1925 Colonial Revival vaudeville and silent movie theater into a 60,000-square-foot performing arts center with an 800-seat historic theater, two cinemas, an art gallery, café, lobbies, backstage rehearsal hall and production facilities required $16.5 million.
“This project was so golden in so many ways, with a downtown location adjacent to the borough parking garage,” he says. “We also had the space within our own building to expand.”
The Majestic reopened on November 14, 2005—the 80th anniversary of its first opening night—with a Broadway gala featuring vocalists Elaine Stritch, Marion Mazzie and Debbie Gravitte, and Carson Kressley and Jamie Bernstein serving as hosts.
Jeffrey, with the help of many others, accomplished his first goal. Now, he had to fill the “grandest small town theater in America” with acts and movies that would attract large audiences and cement the theater’s future.
Locals, tourists and regional residents can almost always find something on the Majestic’s schedule that suit their tastes, whether it’s a musical act, play, comedy show, ballet or circus.
“There was always some skepticism in the early days that the college would just use the building for its own purposes and not let the community in. I had the clear direction that this would be home of the Gettysburg College Sunderman Conservatory of Music, but we would also bring in all kinds of entertainment that would interest all types of people,” Jeffrey says.
Before his stint in Portsmouth, Jeffrey worked for the PBS national office in Washington, D.C. as associate director of cultural programming in charge of classical music, then as the national director of children’s programming. He is credited with helping to develop several award-winning series, including Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?, The Magic School Bus and Barney & Friends.
Jeffrey is most proud of attracting major stars to Gettysburg who were in the latter part of their career but could still fill a theater, such as Hal Holbrook, James Earl Jones, Dave Brubeck and Bob Newhart.
Two years after opening night, the Majestic was the site of another major event. Jeffrey worked with Gettysburg native and seven-time Tony-nominated Broadway producer Karl Held to host the 2007 Governor’s Awards for the Arts.
“I remember being told: ‘We have this great honor for you. We selected your theater and community to host the Governor’s Awards for the Arts, but you need to raise $75,000 to put it on,’” Jeffrey recalls with a laugh.
A blessing and a curse, for sure, but the community stepped up to the challenge and the grand event was held that October.
Fundraising never stops in the theater world. In 2013, donors helped the Majestic raise $164,000 for two new digital projection systems. From 2015 to 2019, the Majestic raised $5.9 million for an endowment dedicated to welcome bigger stars and expand the diversity of the theater’s world-class programming. And in November 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Majestic celebrated its 95th birthday with its first-ever crowdfunding campaign to establish a $318,000 equipment endowment fund.
For every time the Majestic raised funds to secure its future, it extended its help to other community-focused organizations. Under Jeffrey’s leadership, the Majestic has hosted several fundraisers, including multiple shows of The Capitol Steps for the Rotary Club of Gettysburg and Dancing with the Local Stars for the YWCA Gettysburg & Adams County and Adams County Arts Council.
Jeffrey has also been a leader who personally sets an example. The Jean S. LeGros & the Jeffrey W. Gabel Endowment Fund for Family Programming launched in 2012.
Community members who wanted to honor Jeffrey’s work opened The Jeffrey W. Gabel Carry On Laughing Fund at the Adams County Community Foundation. It supports comedic performances at the Majestic.
As the college continues to search for a new executive director, Jeffrey feels confident entering retirement while a staff full of “top-notch professionals” leads his beloved Majestic.
“I always wanted to go out when I was at the top of my game. Crowds are still cheering when I give the curtain speech, not wondering ‘what is that old fart doing out on stage?’” Jeffrey says.
No overlap will occur between his tenure and his successor, but he is excited to watch that individual thrive from afar.
“I am handing you one of the most unique and beautiful historic theaters in the country with a great staff, a generous community and a great community reputation,” Jeffrey says when asked to offer advice to his replacement. “You have every marker for success. I want you to be a success and make it even bigger and better.”
He will soon relocate to Mechanicsburg, spending his days swimming in a saltwater pool and enjoying the Harrisburg-area cultural scene. With his bow ties packed away, he gives his time in Gettysburg a five-star review.
“I am fortunate that I had my most rewarding assignment and working for the best employer I have ever had to close out my career,” Jeffrey says.