The last time Les Cairns went to a Proctors show, he had to eat pizza for dinner. Nothing else was open, he said.
So when the curtain fell after “Spamalot” on Thursday, the Clifton Park man was somewhat stunned to walk out of the theater and discover half a dozen bustling restaurants within a block.
It may seem unlikely that there are still theatergoers who haven’t seen the new downtown, considering that when Proctors finished expanding its stagehouse a year ago, it sold 80,000 tickets for “Phantom of the Opera” alone.
But another big show has arrived, and it appears many of the 20,000 ticket-holders for sold-out “Spamalot” are just as new to the downtown as Phantom’s patrons were.
“We knew Proctors had been done up, but we didn’t realize the rest of downtown had been done up too,” Cairns’ wife Pat said.
The couple was thrilled to eat dinner next to two “Spamalot” cast members at Chez Daisie, the creperie on Jay Street.
“This place is great,” she gushed, while her husband added wryly, “When we first came, 17 years ago, it looked like this place was on the way out.”
They weren’t the only ones who had their image of Schenectady altered on Thursday.
“I haven’t been down here in a while. I think it’s fantastic,” said Jim Faddegon of Latham, who ordered dinner at Ambition Cafe Coffee House and Eatery on Jay Street after Thursday’s matinee. “I like the stores starting to open down here.”
Many of the stores aren’t new — but some of them look like it. Paisa Miser, an international retail shop that has been on Jay Street for 26 years, once looked every year of its age. Now it has a new facade, with red columns and elaborately decorated windows. Other businesses have spruced up their storefronts as well, mostly through facade grants offered by the Metroplex Development Authority.
The change led one family to declare that Metroplex had performed a medical miracle.
“I used to tell people Schenectady is still dying,” quipped Nick Tishler of Niskayuna, who was enjoying dessert at Villa Italia after Thursday’s show. “Now I tell them it’s come back.”
His family used to see about four shows a year at Proctors. This season, they’ve bought tickets to 10 shows, partly because they want to entertain mother-in-law Becky Curley, who moved in after turning 90.
But now that they’re here, they’re glad she provided the excuse.
“We’re so impressed,” said Tishler’s wife, Alison Curley. She described the new Aperitivo Bistro as the type of place she would expect to find in Manhattan, and said she now considers Schenectady to be a good alternative to the hassle of traveling to New York City for a show.
The changes downtown were nothing new to their daughter, Rebecca Tishler, 15. She’s become a fan of Movieland, where there are Memory Foam seats and real butter for the popcorn, and swears it’s the best movie theater in the area.
“It’s a lot better downtown,” the teen said, “Granted, there’s still some places I wouldn’t feel comfortable after dark, but I mean, downtown Schenectady’s completely different. I feel comfortable — which I haven’t felt before.”
She said she wouldn’t venture past the train overpass to lower State Street, where only a few new businesses are running. Metroplex officials are now working to redevelop that area.
As with last year’s sold-out “Phantom,” restaurant owners report that every table is full for an hour before each “Spamalot” show.
But one thing has changed. Business owners who don’t sell food are no longer content to watch the theatergoers walk by.
Tom Lawrence, owner of Lennon’s Irish Shop, hired a bagpiper Thursday to entice crowds onto the retail strip of Jay Street.
“There’s not a whole lot that comes down here,” Lawrence said. “They wouldn’t come down this way on their own. The bagpiper does attract a crowd.”
Sure enough, six patrons had gathered after the first song, and Lawrence did slow but steady business until the 7 p.m. show. A few theater-bound customers stopped at Two Spruce Pottery too, and a couple wandered into Orion and Paisa Miser, the other retailers open on that side of Jay Street.
Still, two or three patrons is a tiny fraction of the 2,600 people cramming into Proctors.
“We don’t get a huge influx,” Lawrence said. “But more than we would if we weren’t open.”
Metroplex officials are still struggling to convince the retailers that it would be worth their while to stay open. A few Jay Street business owners still aren’t keeping regular hours, and most of the others close by 6 p.m. But on Thursday, keeping with long-standing tradition, almost every store was open late.
And they did get a few extra sales because of it.
Annie Parisella, of Schenectady, who took her 12-year-old son Elliot Nark to the matinee, went shopping afterward since the stores were still open.
“As long as we’re here,” she said, picking up incense at Orion and a birthday card at the Open Door Bookstore.
She said that even though there was only a handful of shoppers on the pedestrian walkway, it was still remarkable.
“It’s always crowded, but never after 4 o’clock,” she said. “Look at all the people on Jay Street at 5 o’clock in the afternoon!”
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