by Antoinette Martin
for Montclair Local
Everything was clicking at Montclair Center Stage on Church Street. Tim Gysin, a 22-year-old singer with a repertoire of 300 pop/rock tunes and killer keyboard technique, was captivating the early-evening crowd at the cafes, and those perched on the curbs, benches and lawn chairs. The next act was readying for their set on the elevated stage at the plaza on the corner in front of Simit House Bakery.
And Joann Smalls was seated in her director’s chair, content with her work in bringing the whole production together successfully on another Saturday night. She took a first bite of salad, when suddenly…
“Is that rain?” Smalls, music producer for the Montclair Center business district, leapt from her seat as a heavy sheet of huge raindrops descended from the sky onto the scene. Smalls, her musicians and minions all scurried to grab equipment, posters, and the musicians’ money basket and get them under a tiny canopy set up on the street.
When the rain let up about five minutes later, all was copacetic — except that the power for the sound system shorted out. Smalls hustled into Le Petit Parisien, got the owner on the phone, and secured permission to plug in extension cords and prop open the door so patrons wouldn’t trip on them.
“Well!” Smalls said with a grin and just a trace of a furrowed brow, “This is the entertainment world. This is my life.”
Smalls, a former production manager for the Wellmont Theater, and a former co-owner of the Old Mogul Theatre that closed last year on Bloomfield Avenue, was clear even amidst the downpour: She loves what she does, no matter what.
When the Wellmont changed hands after she had worked there for eight years and she lost her position, Smalls turned a beat-up building into the Old Mogul Theatre, a venue that regularly had concert-goers lining up down the sidewalk until a property dispute with her co-owner put an end to that. She ran an Open Mic in Montclair series for a couple of years. Right now, she is lining up acts to perform at the Crane Park Market, opening Sunday, July 16, at the corner of Glenridge and Greenwood avenues. She has a wildly diverse lineup in place for the Montclair Center Stage, which is held on Church Street from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. on Saturdays through mid-September. Jazz, folk, indie, and on Saturday, Aug. 19, the Watchung Mountain Riders, who Smalls has categorized “hippie/love.”
See the Center Stage schedule at montclaircenter.com.
Smalls’ “discovery,” 11-year-old Ava Otterbein — the young singer who stopped Justin Bieber in his tracks this spring as she performed on a Church Street corner — will appear Aug. 19, too. Otterbein’s mom first approached Smalls at a Church Street concert, and a somewhat skeptical Smalls agreed to give her an audition, surprising the then-9-year-old by asking her perform on the spot, on the sidewalk.
“She was exceptional,” said Smalls, who saw her own first rock concert age at 15, the Ramones, in New York City. Smalls put her up on Center Stage, starting in 2015 — and Otterbein was singing in front of Blue Mercury for a downtown sidewalk sale in May when visiting pop star Bieber spotted her and had his driver pull over.
As seen in a video that has gone semi-viral in these parts, Bieber listens, his arms around a couple of the watching girls, dancing to the beat. He cheers Otterbein on, grabs the microphone for a few seconds to speak to the crowd on the sidewalk, high-fives Otterbein and Smalls, and takes off again.
Smalls was unfazed. “I am always seeing celebrities on the street,” she said. “When I was 15, the week after I saw the Ramones in concert, I saw Joey Ramone just walking by me in New York. I stopped and told him about seeing him a few days before, and I gave him a silver felt-tip to sign my leather jacket. I wore that jacket for years, but then somebody stole it one night from my chair at a club.”
Smalls shrugged as it were just another freak thundershower on a sunny July day. “Things happen,” she said. “It’s OK, because I’m still having fun.”