Edward Burke, a World War II veteran and longtime Proctors employee who died earlier this month at 93, was known around the Schenectady theater as the ultimate handyman.
During his time at the theater, which spanned more than three decades, Burke did everything from disassembling theater seats to repairing boilers in the heating system. Perhaps most of all, he knew how to keep things running smoothly.
Later in his career, Burke walked the theater during every shift, on the hunt for anything amiss or in need of fixing, according to Dan Sheehan, the theater’s director of operations.
“It’s amazing how much he caught,” Sheehan said.
A Brooklyn native, Burke volunteered for service in the United States Navy during World War II and became a Seabee, according to his obituary. He later served in Japan and Korea during the Korean War. Following that, Burke worked as a toll collector with the New York State Thruway for 30 years before moving on to Proctors, where he worked until he was 92.
“We firmly believe that working every day [right up until the pandemic closed the theater] gave him a purpose, and kept him healthy and active. Up until last February, he drove himself to and from work every day,” said Burke’s family in a statement.
“One of his many quips included, ‘When I read the paper in the morning, if my name isn’t in the obits or among the lottery winners, then I guess I have to go to work today.’ ”
Burke’s second career at Proctors began after Dennis Madden, executive director of the theater during its revival in 1979, asked him to help raise the seats in the dress circle.
That job led to many others, as Burke recounted in a 2013 video interview with Karen Johnson, filmed by Proctors Historical Committee. Burke helped with the restoration work even as he maintained his full-time job as a toll collector for some years before moving on to work solely at Proctors.
“He put some of his Navy experience to use in figuring out how to light the boilers of the theater’s heating system. He also disassembled every seat in the theater to be sent out for reupholstering and learned how to restore the decorative plasterwork. In general, he was a ‘jack of all trades’ and the chief handyman for the theater,” said Burke’s family.
According to Sheehan, Burke was one of the few people who knew how to clean and maintain the scagliola in the theater, which is featured on the columns and in various places throughout the property. Experts from Evergreen Architectural Arts, the restoration company that worked with Proctors on several major projects, taught Burke how to maintain the decorative plasterwork.
“He would be constantly cleaning the marble because decades of smoking actually tarnished all the scagliola in the building, so you’re literally sanding off tobacco and getting the white back, and he learned how to do that, which was very valuable because it’s something that is not done anymore. The skill set is disappearing,” Sheehan said.
Proctors honored Burke on June 14 by posting Burke’s photo and a message on the theater’s marquee that read, “Proctors remembers: Edward ‘Mr. Ed’ Burke. You will be missed.”
As the theater starts opening to the public again later this year, Sheehan said he’s wary of doing so without Burke’s expertise.
“We’re actually a little worried about what we’re going to miss, post-Ed,” Sheehan said.
“There was never a job or project that he wouldn’t tackle, whether it was building a cement mixer out of spare auto parts, building a patio next to our garage in Scotia or any of the hundreds of tasks he did at Proctors over the years,” said Burke’s family. “When they talk about ‘The Greatest Generation,’ there is no better example than Ed Burke.”
To view the video interview with Burke and Johnson, visit Proctors Historical Committee on YouTube.
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