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Proctors' ceiling

Today's story by Kelly delaRocha brought back great memories for me of the time I was able to touch the Proctors ceiling. It was the summer of 1997 and back then, I was a reporter in our arts department. Every time I have been to Proctors since, I think about how close I once was to that beautiful ceiling. Being a reporter is a tough job, but assignments like that provide memories that we can take with us to our rocking chairs.

Here, for kicks, is my story, from August 1997:

SCHENECTADY Today's multiplex movie theaters may have a dozen films, stadium seating and digital sound, but the theaters themselves are not the stars they once were.

"In the '20s and '30s, going to the movies was a real experience, not just to see a movie but to experience the ambiance, said James Cohen, the architect overseeing a $210,000 restoration of the ornamental ceiling under way at Proctor 's Theatre.

Built in 1927 as a movie theater and vaudeville house, Proctor 's has in the past 20 years developed as more of a venue for live entertainment, with occasional movie screenings. The fall schedule includes touring productions of Broadway shows such as "Annie" and "Cats," as well as concerts by Julio Iglesias and Mandy Patinkin.

The restoration project is accenting the ceiling with color and with gold, with workers painstakingly applying ultra-thin sheets of "Dutch leaf gold," a mixture of gold and bronze, to raised plaster flourishes.

"We're putting a halo on our jewel of a theater," said Harry Apkarian, chairman of Proctor 's board of directors. "But this project is more than about beautifying a theater. It's about revitalizing Schenectady, restoring pride in Schenectady, and getting everyone to work together."

On a platform of plywood 60 feet high, Kim Stephenson sat on an overturned five-gallon pail, paintbrush in hand. Before her, on the curve of the ceiling as it slopes down to the wall, was a plaster medallion covered with a fresh coat of white primer.

"It looks kind of like the frosting on a wedding cake," she said of the swirling scrolls and curlicues awaiting their gold.

Getting right look

Gold leafing, offering the illusion of solid gold for a fraction of the price, dates back to Egyptian times, according to Armand Herreras, the foreman of the Proctor 's project for EverGreene Painting Studio of New York City.

Different types of gold leaf are available, from expensive 22-karat gold to mixtures with less pricey metals that lessen the cost.

Dutch leaf, a percentage of gold mixed with bronze, was used in the original Proctor 's construction and is being used again for the ceiling restoration.

Unlike gold, however, bronze tarnishes. Restorers are consequently applying a sealant over the gilding to protect it from discoloration.

When first applied, the gilding is brilliantly bright. It's pretty, but not historically accurate, said Cohen, a principal with Mesick Cohen Wilson & Baker Architects LLP of Albany.

A glazing, similar to that originally used, will tone down the shine and make the restored areas harmonize with the rest of the theater.

Dutch leaf, like other kinds of gold leaf, comes hammered in 4-inch squares, separated by similarly sized pieces of white and orange tissue paper bound together in small books that fit neatly in the hand.

"We're using thousands and thousands of sheets of gold on this project," Herreras told a group of theater patrons earlier this month. Real gold costs about $1 for a sheet half the size, he said. Dutch leaf is about one-12th the cost of real gold.

It's not the gold leaf that makes the project expensive, said Cohen. It's the labor involved in applying all the paint, sizing, sealants, varnishes and glazes, as well as the tricky job of applying the gold leaf.

The huge scaffolding needed for the project, one that took two weeks to erect and fills the theater, consumed $55,000 of the $210,000 budget for the project. "There's the cost of erecting it and of dismantling it, as well as for renting it each day it's up," said Cohen.

Up-close view

The scaffolding enables architects, workers and even some theater enthusiasts to get a rare bird's eye view of the ceiling .

"This is almost a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Karen Johnson, director of development at Proctor 's Theatre.

Cohen agreed, noting he had to rely on binoculars when he began studying the ceiling last spring. "It's an exciting project for us, he said of being able to get so close to the ceiling . "This kind of opportunity comes along probably once every 50 years.

While the scaffolding is up, Proctor 's is doing as much ceiling work as it can. Restoration of the central dome, where the original Dutch leaf is exposed and in good shape, will be completed, as will work on the bands ringing the ceiling and ornamental crests at the front of the theater.

A portion of the current project aims to reverse work of the late 1970s, when some of the theater's original gold leaf was painted over with a bronze powder paint.

"It was not done with a great deal of historical accuracy," said Cohen of the project, undertaken through a local job training program. "We would never do that."

Removing the paint from the 1970s to expose the original gold leaf was not possible, he said. "The only solution was to prime it and to put a new layer of Dutch leaf over it, he said.

The unpainted spot was something of a blessing for the current restorations, clearly showing what the original gold leaf was like, said Herreras.

Since the 1970s, historic restorations have been subject to greater care, said Cohen. "There's been a great deal of maturing," he said, linking the change in part to the availability of federal tax credits for such work in the 1970s.

Limited amount of time

The 1970s project was also stopped before it was completed, with $25,000 worth of scaffolding dismantled to allow General Electric Co. to use the theater for its centennial celebrations.

Theatergoers have been staring at the result a large and noticeable unpainted spot on the ceiling just above the stage ever since.

"Some people say they're going to be sorry to see that spot go," said Johnson. "It's part of our history now."

But with the fall season of concerts and plays approaching, even this project won't restore the entire ceiling . Money, and time, will run out before all the needed work is done. But this time, said Cohen, the unfinished business won't be glaring. "We're restoring the ceiling in a way that's compatible with the geometry and layout of the ceiling so it looks integrated," he said.

The current project will complete much of the ceiling , particularly the center dome. The work that remains to be done, sometime in the future, is in easier reach, requiring far less scaffolding, said Johnson.

A state grant, through the Environmental Protection Fund, will contribute $100,000 toward the $210,000 needed to pay for the work. Proctor 's is appealing to its members and patrons for the remainder.

While expensive, the ceiling project re-establishes the vision of the original architect, Thomas Lamb, for the theater, said Johnson.

"When we look at Proctor 's, one of the real joys is being in a beautiful house," said Johnson. "It's part of who we are, and it enriches what people see on the stage."

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