Lee Babitt tells the story of a woman walking past the Count Basie Theatre three Sundays ago trying to get a peek at what was going on inside the entertainment palace she’d patronized for years.
As the general contractor on the Red Bank theater’s $8 million renovation, Babitt was well prepared to answer her questions. But instead, he offered to show her, and asked her to close her eyes as he led her inside by the hand.
“Then she opened her eyes, looked around, and she just started crying,” he says.
For Babitt, that made the months of long, hectic days worth the effort way more than any amount of money.
Babitt doesn’t live anywhere near the Basie. In fact, before earlier this year, he had never set foot inside the theater born in 1926 as the Carlton. So he had neither the nostalgia for great shows of the past nor the disappointment of those who endured years of musty smells and raining bits of plaster.
But Babitt had this: fifty years under his belt. And as just about anyone who reaches that milestone will understand, it brought with it an indescribable desire to create something significant and lasting and personal before the big candle gets blown out.
Which is about all Babitt has by way of explanation for why, when he stood to make beaucoup bucks by restoring the theater’s interior, he decided to do it gratis.
That’s right. The guy who oversaw the multimillion, faster-than-hurry-up project didn’t take a dime of profit for himself or his company, Gibraltar Construction, based way the heck down in Gibbsboro, in the Philly suburbs.
“We first approached [theater officials] and said, ‘It sounds like a real interesting project,'” Babitt recalls, as though conjuring up a moment from his naive youth instead of last March, just a few days after he turned 50. “I didn’t realize the enormity of it.”
But then he visited the Monmouth Street showcase and saw what a challenge it would be to his skills, bringing into play not only a need to honor the history of the place, but to do it under a tight schedule of less than four months.
He also saw, he says, how passionate the people connected to the theater were about it. And as he explored the Basie, he says,”I just became captivated by it, and by how captivated the locals here are about it.”
Babitt threw his name in for consideration to manage the overhaul. Which was nervy on numerous levels, not the least of which was that he’d never overseen a project anything like it. Gibraltar’s business, in fact, is building dentists’ offices and MRI scanning facilities, mostly in spanking new office buildings.
“We’d never touched plaster,” he says.
But a team of real estate and development experts brought in by the Count Basie Foundation gave Babitt and several other would-be GCs a thorough going-over, and “he checked out,” says Rusty Young, the foundation’s CEO. “He seemed like a sincere, hardworking, knowledgeable guy.”
Then, there was his “bid,” if you can call it that, offering to do it at no markup. Young, faced with “one of the most important decisions we would make,” looked Babitt in the eye and asked why he would do it for free.
“His answer was honest and believable,” says Young. It had several aspects to it including a love of he performing arts but at its core, Babitt’s response was that “he was very successful in his career and was at a point in his life that he wanted to give something back,” Young says.
So, how did things work out? “The project came in on time, under budget, and everyone who comes in here leaves with their jaws dropped,” says Young. “It’s beautiful. Simply beautiful.”
In the process, Babitt left tens of thousands of dollars in fees on the table. He says he couldn’t care less.
“It sounds corny, but we’ve just gotten this huge sense of satisfaction from this project,” Babitt tells redbankgreen while touring the theater recently. “I have 100 people running the day-to-day of my business. This is was my opportunity to step away from that and have something that could be mine.
“It’s the most gratifying thing I’ve done in 20 years,” he says.