Remembering another challenging time for Proctors: When it was nearly torn down in the 1970s

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Photos: Top left: A recent photo of Proctors’ interior. Top right: In May of 1979, Mardy Moore, left, of the Arts Center and Theatre of Schenectady, meets with Rev. Carl B. Taylor of Schenectady’s Friendship Baptist Church and Janet King, chairwoman of the musical production, “Moving On Up: A Journey Into Blackness,” which was presented at Proctors. Bottom right: Magician Harry Blackstone Jr. backstage during the reopening of Proctors on Jan. 3, 1979. Bottom left: Historian and volunteer Marilyn Sassi at her home in the Stockade neighborhood last summer. Inset: Frederick Proctor. (Gazette file photos; current photo of Proctors by Erica Miller)

Nearly a year ago, and on the same day as the founder’s birthday, Proctors went from perpetually busy to a standstill.

Because of the pandemic, the stage has been devoid of the Broadway musicals, comedy shows and live concerts the arts behemoth has become known for hosting.

Yet, it’s hardly the first time the theater has gone through a rough year.

Longtime volunteers like Mardy Moore and Marilyn Sassi remember a time when the theater was in shambles and it took a grassroots community effort to get it back to its former glory.

When Proctors first opened in Schenectady in 1926, it proved to be a popular venue, showing everything from movies, variety shows, comedians, dancers, etc. However, during the 1950 and 1960s, in part due to a rise in the popularity of television, the theater became less of an entertainment mainstay and the condition of the building was deteriorating according to Sassi, who is a historian on Proctors History Committee.

“By the ‘60s things were already going downhill very quickly and when you think about the huge expense of the roof and the fact that it started leaking and none of the repairs could be done you can imagine water damage alone caused horrific damage,” Sassi said.

Ownership had changed hands a few times by that point, but no one seemed to be able to make a successful go of it. Eventually, more than $200,000 in back-taxes were owed on it, according to Sassi, and it was seized by the city in 1977.

“It had been boarded up in the early ‘70s and it was going to be torn down,” Sassi said.

That’s when people like Moore came in. A self-described theater nut, Moore was on the Schenectady Council on the Arts, which first led the effort to bring the theater back. She, as well as other members of the group, was partially inspired by the demolition of Schenectady’s Plaza Theatre in 1964.

“When they sold the Plaza Theatre, which was a beautiful theater . . . and they took it down to make a parking lot . . . I thought this is terrible, losing these lovely old buildings. So I just determined that I wasn’t going to let that happen to Proctors,” Moore said.

Moore, along with volunteers like Katherine Rozendaal, incorporated the theater, forming a nonprofit called the Arts Center and Theatre of Schenectady, Inc. (ACTS) in 1977.

However, to come back, the theater had to undergo major renovations and repairs, not to mention that thousands of dollars had to be raised for the restoration.

“It was definitely a labor of love, a grassroots effort. When the theater was first trying to come back from all the damage sustained with water coming through that big roof, the story that really touched me on how bad things were is when they first walked in to see if anything could be salvaged, . . . and pigeons were flying back and forth, roosting in the box seats,” Sassi said.

Yet, volunteers weren’t deterred.

“Everybody loved the theater, the plumbers worked for free, the electricians worked for free. Everybody helped to try to get that theater up and running,” Sassi said.

“I’m a firm believer that if enough people help, you can do almost anything,” Moore said.

ACTS held a “Proctors is Alive and Well” fundraiser, which garnered more than $7,000, and helped secure $500,000 in city and federal funding for repairs. A crew from the Schenectady Employment and Training Administration helped to paint and re-plaster the walls. Also installed was a new roof, sprinkler system and balcony railings.

Volunteers helped with everything from cleaning the chandeliers to cleaning the plaster from the thousands of seats, which were too expensive at the time to replace.

“Everything needed doing,” Moore said. “But everybody was so anxious to help. It was such a wonderful spirit. It just made you feel so proud of Schenectady because people just came forward. If we said we needed something, somebody would say ‘I can help you do that.’”

In addition to the contributions by community volunteers, several corporations donated funds for the renovation effort.

Finally, in 1979, Schenectady Mayor Frank Duci handed the keys to Proctors to Rozendaal, who was the president of ACTS. Later that day, magician Harry Blackstone Jr., performed for a standing room-only audience.

“Three thousand people came to see Harry Blackstone breathe life into the Arts Center Theater group’s attempt to resurrect the theater; they marveled again last night at its opulence, partially restored with city and federal money and a lot of hard work by volunteers. They weren’t disappointed,” read a Gazette article from the time.

The opening night’s show boosted morale, though it didn’t quite go off without a hitch.

“Of course, not having the theater been in steady use, the plumbing failed and the show went on. Nobody left, nobody complained. At the end of the show, there wasn’t even a drinking fountain working let allow the bathrooms and people were just so excited to have this wonderful happening in downtown Schenectady, so nobody complained,” Moore said.

Blackstone was joined by his elephant, Misty, as reported in the Gazette, who came in handy even after the show was done.

“When the show ended what was not really predicted was a huge blizzard hit Schenectady and many of the theatergoers were stranded but [Misty] was so well-trained that they put a harness on her and she pulled all the stranded cars out of the parking lot,” Sassi said.

Holbrook’s help

That same year, Dennis Madden, who had also been involved in saving the theater, became the executive director.

He helped to raise funds for further renovations and worked with Moore to bring in bigger acts, including performers like Hal Holbrook, who died earlier this year. Holbrook returned to the theater several times after his initial performance in the 1980s and even helped raise funds to replace the well-worn theater seats and did free advertising for Proctors.

“He was the first person not from Schenectady, some outsider that came in town and said ‘I’m going to help these people,’” Madden told the Gazette earlier this year. “We were really struggling. Consider again what the ticket prices were and how hard it was to convince people to come to the theater, but now we had Hal Holbrook standing up on TV and saying ‘This is a special place.’ ”

Audrey Hughes, who came on board in 1979 and eventually became the press and public relations director, said that they always tried to make the 16 dressing rooms nicer for the performers.

“The dressing rooms at that particular time were kinda crummy. They needed work. . . so I used to put a fresh flower in every dressing room,” Hughes said.

Moore said they also made sure to have a group of local volunteers assist the performers during their stay.

“The theater early on had a good reputation for being a wonderful place to play because if you were booked into Proctors you knew you were going to be treated very well,” said Moore, who did most of the booking in the beginning.

Working with a shoestring staff at first, Hughes well remembers the challenge of getting the word out there about the theater’s revival, with little to no money for advertising.

“It was a challenge and everybody rose to the challenge,” Hughes said.

Continued renovations

From the time the theater reopened until just a few years ago, it continued to undergo major renovations.

By 1992, the roof was replaced and five years later, the ceiling dome and front half of the theater were restored. The seats were completely replaced in 2018, under the leadership of the current CEO, Philip Morris. The theater has also expanded to include the GE Theatre and The Addy. A company called Evergreene Architectural Arts was brought on in 2014 to refurbish the gold leaf and the scagliola — which resembles marble — found throughout the theater.

“What feels so sad to me now that the theater has been closed . . . [is] they finally finished all of the new updates with the golf leaf scagliola and everything was perfect,” Sassi said.

Indeed, beyond the restoration work, Proctors had also taken on operations at Albany’s theREP and Universal Preservation Hall in Saratoga Springs.

“In 2019, we had just over 3,000 events at Proctors and we were just a $30 million organization, which made us the largest cultural, outside of the boroughs in New York, in the state,” Morris said.

However, on March 17, 2020, that all came to a halt and the theater closed as the coronavirus began to spread in New York State. Not too long after that, unsure how long the theater would have to remain closed, Morris furloughed 160 full-time and 53 part-time workers, leaving a staff of 32 people.

“At the time when we did our big layoff, I went big because everything I read [said] it was going to be a long time [until we reopened] and I figured . . . we don’t have $150 million endowments or anything like that so we’re not in a position to have rolling mistakes,” Morris said.

After installing new ventilation systems, the theater has been able to hold certain community events and live-streamed concerts for groups like the Schenectady Symphony.

While the schedule, including the Broadway season and other events, is still in flux for this year, Proctors is hoping to raise $13 million to open again later this year. Morris is budgeting around $5 million from federal sources and says that Proctors is eligible for the Shuttered Venues Program funding. They’ve recently started asking subscribers and others to contribute to the restart campaign and Morris said the response has been spectacular.

“It’s heartwarming frankly because last year’s been pretty depressing,” Morris said, adding that the donations have “come with incredible words of support and encouragement.”

Moore has been a longtime member of the theater and said she’ll be one for as long as she can.

“I’ve been involved with Proctors since before it [reopened] and I probably will until the day I die because I consider it something that I’m so proud to have been involved with it,” Moore said.

“It’s turned out to be a jewel in the community because Proctors’ renovation and turnaround fostered a lot of other activity in the city and made people proud of the city.”

Frederick Proctor started as  circus performer

Frederick Freeman Proctor, who was known as the Dean of Vaudeville, was born on March 17, 1851, in Dexter, Maine.

He was fascinated by the circus as a child.

“He wanted to emulate the trapeze artists, the jugglers; he loved that so much that he created his own little workout area in the basement of the farmhouse. He set up ropes from the beams in the ceiling and taught himself the trapeze arts and juggling skills,” Sassi said.

When he was young, his father died and his mother moved the family, which included four other children, to Boston. Proctor and the rest of his siblings had to work to support the family, so Proctor apprenticed to a dry goods store owner.

“He desperately wanted to continue working on his trapeze skills and his juggling skills. So in the basement of the dry goods store, he set up another little practice area and his boss came in one day early and heard him in the basement, went down and was shocked at his skills. He went to his mother and he said ‘Your son is too talented to fool around with the dry goods business. I think he could become a professional entertainer’ and that’s where Mr. Proctor got his start in show business,” Sassi said.

At 17 years old, he was hired as a circus performer and he never left the entertainment business, though, by 1886, he’d moved into theater management. During his lifetime, he owned more than 50 theaters across New York State. Proctor opened his first in Schenectady in 1912 and the ensuing years, as General Electric and the American Locomotive Company prompted more and more people to move to the Schenectady area, he decided to build the theater at 432 State Street. When his health was failing in the ensuing years, he decided to sell the theater to Radio Keith Orpheum Corp., a large entertainment company, for $16 million. Proctor died soon after, in 1929, just three years after the theater had opened.

A Proctors timeline

April 8, 1912

Before he built his own theater at 432 State St., Frederick Proctor rented a new venue at the northwest corner of State and Erie Boulevard 14 years earlier and called it Proctor’s Theatre. When the new Proctor’s opened in 1926, the older building became the State Theater. It sat 1,675 people.

April 14, 1925

Ground is broken for the new theater, designed by architect Thomas Lamb.

Dec. 26, 1927

Proctors opens at noon that Monday, allowing people to just come in and check out the building before the entertainment started at 1 p.m. with a silent film called “Stranded in Paris,”  a comedy starring Bebe Daniels. The place seats around 2,700 people.

Sept. 2, 1929

Frederick Proctor dies, having earlier in the year sold the theater to the Radio Keith Orpheum Corp. for $16 million.

May 22, 1930

General Electric engineer Ernst Alexanderson offers the first public demonstration of television, broadcasting a live orchestra performance from GE headquarters about a mile away onto a 7-foot screen set up in the crowded theater at Proctors.

1930s-1940s

Proctors thrives throughout much of the time period, hosting some of the biggest acts in entertainment such as Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, to name a few. However, as television becomes a bigger part of American culture in the 1950s, things change. Proctors becomes primarily a movie house and finds it hard to compete with new theaters in the suburbs.

1977

After years of slow decline, Proctors is seized by the city for nonpayment of taxes. Officials schedule demolition, but a group of citizens led by Katherine S. Rozendaal comes together to save the theater. Their group, the Arts Center and Theatre of Schenectady, known as ACTS, raises money and puts in hours of volunteer time to spruce up the venue and keep it from falling into disrepair.

1979

Because of ACTS, Proctors is able to reopen on Jan. 3, 1979. Mayor Frank Duci calls it “a significant, historic moment,” as he hands the keys of Proctors to Rozendaal, who in turn gives Duci and the city $1 to “purchase” the theater. Later that day, magician Harry Blackstone Jr, whose father had played Proctors 40 years earlier, performs in front of a sold-out theater. Dennis Madden takes over as executive director, becomes mayor of Scotia in 1986, and leaves Proctors in 1988.

1984

Fundraisers are held to keep Proctors afloat, and in 1984 the theater celebrates its fifth year as a not-for-profit. Also, the Golub family donates a 1926 Wurlitzer organ, nicknamed Goldie, to Proctors.

Aug. 21, 1988

After Madden resigns, Gloria Lamere, who had been executive director of the Albany Coliseum, takes over that position at Proctors.

1999

After a near decadelong series of improvements, Proctors can boast a new roof, stage floor, refurbished dressing rooms and air conditioning. Also, in November of that year, Schenectady mayor Al Jurczynski and his Albany counterpart Jerry Jennings schedule a task force to look into the feasibility of a merger between Proctors and The Palace. After an initial meeting, enthusiasm for the idea wanes, and any discussion of a merger ends.

August 2001

Lamere dies. Under her leadership, Proctors continued to offer plenty of top-notch entertainment and increase its profile.

2002

Philip Morris’ first day as executive director is March 4. Two months later, on May 5, general manager Fred Daniels announces a 2002-2003 season consisting of 50 shows, including “Miss Saigon” and “Riverdance.”

April 7, 2005

Morris announces a $40 million expansion project that will allow Proctors to host large productions that had been too big for its stage. At the same news conference, he also announces that “The Phantom of the Opera” will arrive in Schenectady in May of 2006 for a month-long stay. Morris calls it “the biggest news to hit downtown Schenectady since F.F. Proctor opened up the theater.”

2007

Proctors finishes construction of the GE Theatre and the Fenimore Gallery, as well as an expanded lobby and cafe area.

2011

Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany merges with Proctors

2013

For the first time, Proctors hosts a month-long tech rehearsal for a national touring production, “Ghosts: The Musical.”

2015

Proctors takes over operations of Universal Preservation Hall in Saratoga Springs.

2017

Proctors has an annual operating budget of $22 million and now lures more than 650,000 visitors through its doors each year to more than 1,700 events. The Addy, a new performance and rehearsal space, is created on the third floor.

2020

United Preservation Hall reopens in February after the completion of a $13.5 million renovation project. By March 17, Proctors and all the theaters under its umbrella, temporarily close with the looming threat of the coronavirus pandemic.

— Compiled by Bill Buell and updated by Indiana Nash

Categories: -The Daily Gazette, Entertainment, Life & Arts

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