Dish: how one man directs downtown nightlife
March 30, 2012By Erin Sroka
Justin Smith surely wasn’t the first Wilmington actor to make a living in the service industry. Smith, 39, has turned the starving artist paradigm on its head, working his way from doorman to restaurateur while funding an active creative life in Wilmington theater.
Smith is part of a group of restaurateurs who co-own Yosake, Mixto, The Little Dipper, and now hot dog bar The Husk. The Little Dipper is a project of Smith and his wife Bekah. The husband and wife team co-own Yosake along with Gil Johnson and married couple Tanya Wildman and Ian Moseley. Mixto is owned by Smith along with Johnson, Barbara Wheetman and Harper Peterson.
Smith first met Ian Moseley at the Wave Hog Saloon, in the space that is now Dock Street Oyster Bar. Smith worked for Moseley, sweeping floors and watching the door until they promoted him to manager.
In the summer of 1997, Gil Johnson and Barbara Wheetman, two actors Smith knew from the theater scene, opened a new bar called the Blue Post. They brought Smith on as general manager.
“That was amazing,” Smith said. “There weren’t a lot of people who believed in the place. They were like, ‘so you’re going to put an arcade and pool tables?’ But we believed in it hardcore. It’s been a staple ever since.”
Smith, who moved to Wilmington in ‘94, credits the people he met downtown as one reason for the bar’s fast success.
“I was fortunate to have been downtown long enough to hire a really great staff,” he said.
Smith first stepped into an ownership role in 2000 with the opening of Level 5 at City Stage.
“I got a call from Ian Moseley that said, ‘Look, I got this place, it’s up on the fifth floor of a building, and I want to put a rooftop bar up there. It’s got a theater attached. I need someone to run the theater—want to be my business partner?’” Gil Johnson came on board and the three worked together as partners for the first time.
“We’ve been in cahoots ever since,” Smith said. The group does not currently have plans to open another restaurant. “But if something came up, we’re always all ears,” Smith said. “That’s what I love about Wilmington.”
On his way to somewhere else
Smith had just graduated college in 1994 and was headed to New York or LA to pursue acting when he got an invitation from his aunt and uncle to come stay with them on Oak Island. His aunt and uncle told him there was a film industry in Wilmington and that this is where they filmed “Matlock.”
“A week after I got here, I got a week’s worth of work on ‘Matlock,’” Smith said. The part was for a basketball recruit who catalyzed a murder and a court case. “It was huge,” Smith said, for a just-graduated theater major from Vermont.
Smith maintained his plans to move to a bigger city, but as time went by, his ties to the Port City increased. When City Stage at Level 5 opened, Smith knew that good things were happening for him here.
“It was a combination of business and my wife,” he said. “By the time I was 30, I was rooted.”
He had also found a good balance between work and art, making a living in the service industry while maintaining a creative life.
“I always tell the younger actors coming up, it wasn’t until I started to make any money personally and really be able to live without having to worry about it did that lifestyle become a little bit easier for me,” he said.
Making it Work in Wilmington
Smith works as artistic director of City Stage, along with managing director Chiaki Ito. Moseley and Johnson still serve as producers. It’s been under Smith’s tenure as artistic director that City Stage produced such hits as “Reefer Madness” and “Debbie Does Dallas.”
“We’re an edgy theater. Our idea has always been to give an alternative to the things you see on a regular basis—the Oklahomas, the Annies. We try to give Wilmington the opportunity to see what New York has seen as soon as we can,” he said.
According to Smith, Wilmington has been a prime location for producing community theater at an exceptionally high level.
“It’s a unique place because we have the film industry, and we have things that draw artists, in particular theatrical artists and technicians, people who have the technical know-how and skill to put on high class stuff,” he said.
Reflecting on City Stage’s most recent production, “Spring Awakening,” Smith mentioned wanting to pay actors a fair wage for their work.
“I just got finished with Spring Awakening, which was one of the most beautiful shows I’ve seen, Broadway or otherwise, and I could pay the actors pennies on their hours. There’s nothing that would make me happier than to be able to give them a weekly paycheck,” he said.
He hopes that the recent formation of Wilmington’s Arts Council will help usher in more funding for high quality productions. Further, he harbors dreams for a professional playhouse.
“My dream is to be the person who starts an equity playhouse here,” he said.
City Stage’s current production is “Next to Normal,” a Pulitzer-prize-winning rock musical about a mother in the midst of a 17-year emotional breakdown. It runs from March 30-31, April 1, 6-8 and 13-15. All shows are at 8 p.m.
“It’s anything but normal,” Smith said. “Go see it!”