In photos: Left, Jack Aernecke returns for the Melodies of Christmas at Proctors in 2019. Right, Marsh Hanson (left) an eighth-grader at Shenendehowa, played the title character, and Allen Phelps, a student at New Lebanon High School, was the Artful Dodger in the 1982 Schenectady Light Opera Company production of “Oliver!” staged at Proctors.
The best show ever at Proctors? Our top ten list of musical productions might suggest it was 2019’s “Hamilton,” but with a venue that is now 95 years old, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical masterpiece certainly has a lot of competition.
When F.F. Proctor opened his 3,000-seat theater on Dec. 27, 1926, a silent movie, “Stranded in Paris,” with Bebe Daniels, was the main attraction. There were viewings at 1, 4, 7 and 10 p.m., and various vaudeville performers would entertain the audience at 2:45, 6 and 8:30 p.m. Matinee tickets cost 35 cents, and the evening shows were a half dollar. Hardly Hamiltonian prices.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Proctors hosted some of the biggest names in show business, such as Bob Hope, Louis Armstrong and Red Skelton to name a few. Proctors was also the setting for Ernst Alexanderson’s first public demonstration of the television on May 22, 1930.
There have been some slow times in its near century-long history, but Proctors has endured, in large part because it exists in the midst of a dedicated theater community. That usually means a devoted audience following, but in the early 1980s it was sometimes local talent that got up on stage and did the performing, giving the theater a nice big shot in the arm.
One of those occasions was when Joe Fava directed a Schenectady Light Opera Company production of “Oliver!” on the Proctors main stage that filled the house for five straight days in December of 1982.
“That’s the only time I can remember selling out a matinee, and we had to hold the show for 15 minutes because there were people still in the aisles taking their seats,” remembered Fava. “We split the gate with Proctors and took in 70 or 80 thousand dollars. It was unbelievable.”
Don Mealy, currently president of SLOC, was the musical director, and former Linton High English teacher Ron Kidd was the set designer. Amsterdam native John Allen, then a local TV news anchor, played Fagin, Shenendehowa eighth grader Marsh Hanson was Oliver and New Lebanon High student Allen Phelps was the Artful Dodger.
Former Gazette arts editor Peg Churchill-Wright opened her review by writing, “If ever a Schenectady Light Opera Company show deserved to be included in the Broadway series at Proctor’s Theater, it is ‘Oliver!”
“I just lucked out with the cast, and Don Mealy and Ron Kidd also did a great job,” said Fava. “We had an idea about broadening our company, so we did two big shows at Proctors and two at the opera house each year.”
The close collaboration only lasted a few seasons, and two years earlier Kidd had made a big splash at Proctors directing a production of “Hair” for two days in August of 1980 for a group called the Plaza Players. Churchill Wright, who could be brutally honest when she felt like she had to be, called “Hair” an “excellent production which should not be missed by anyone with a desire to relive the Sixties, or see some of the area’s best young acting and singing talents.”
Kidd, who left Linton after 12 years in 1983 and headed to New York City to pursue a career in theater, remembers the show very well. The Plaza Players was an acting troupe that was restricted to Linton High students during the school year.
“For our bigger summer productions we opened it up to the community, and we collaborated with Ted Beardsley at Mont Pleasant,” said Kidd earlier this week from his home in Somerset, Kentucky. “I made so many wonderful and lasting friendships from that production, and we also did a pretty good production of ‘Godspell’ the next summer at Proctors.”
Another special theatrical event created by local talent was 1990’s “Hearts of Fire,” Maria Riccio Bryce’s musical retelling of the 1690 Schenectady Massacre. The Albany Times Union called it “a surprising hit,” and referred to Riccio Bryce as a “first-rate composer and lyricist,” while Gazette critic Eleanor Koblenz called it stunning and wrote how it “ought to make Schenectadians stand up and cheer.”
An annual event and always a huge success for 40 years now at Proctors has been the Melodies of Christmas, a fundraiser primarily sponsored by CBS 6 to benefit the Children’s Hospital at Albany Medical Center. Some of the usual performers are the Empire State Youth Orchestra and Youth Chorale, the Northeast Ballet and Orlando’s School of Dance, but while the talent is splendid, long-time area newscaster Jack Aernecke remembers the primary component of the evening was emotion.
“One role that fell to me very quickly was introducing the young people at the end of the concert; the kids who either had cancer and were being treated, and those who had been cured,” said Aernecke, who retired from CBS 6 in 2006 but returned to the Melodies of Christmas in 2019 to help mark the event’s 40th anniversary. “There were many tears in the audience, and that included me. That role is one of the highlights of my career. “
Locally produced events like the ones mentioned above helped Proctors get through some lean years when its future was in doubt. Then current boss Philip Morris showed up in 2002, “Phantom” was in town for a month three years later on a new expanded stage, and the rest is history.
“The ‘Phantom’ that was done right after the big stage expansion was really unbelievable,” said Marillyn Sassi, curator of the Proctors History Museum. “I talked to people who had seen it on Broadway and said our production was as good if not better.”
Like Aernecke, Sassi’s most memorable theater experience, a trip to see “Fiddler on the Roof” with her grandfather, Harry Ruvin, was filled with emotion. So much so that Ruvin, who escaped from Russia as a young Jewish boy, couldn’t make it past the play’s opening scene due to a fabulous set design.
“We had great center, orchestra seats, but when the curtain went up my beloved grandfather began to cry so badly, we had to get up and leave,” remembered Sassi. “I was horrified, but it turned out to be a wonderful experience for me. When we got home he brought me into his room and for the very first time told me about his escape from Russia. That’s one of the reasons why I love that theater so much. He would take me to movies at Proctors growing up, and that set design for ‘Fiddler’ so long ago is still so very powerful to me. It’s a great example of how realistic stage setting can work.”
That night, and on hundreds of other nights each year, Proctors has unfailingly produced great entertainment. The COVID-19 Pandemic may have temporarily pulled down the curtain, but in the not-too-distant future the historic venue will again be packed with audience members, all eagerly waiting to suspend their disbelief.