The best seats in the house at Proctors on Monday were not front and center in the orchestra pit, but rather on top of the extensive scaffolding that’s been erected in the balcony. Once you hike to the highest seats in the house, then up a small stepladder to the rough sheets of plywood that serve as the scaffolding’s floor, the historic theater’s 60-foot-high domed ceiling is near enough to touch. Up close, it’s even more amazing than when viewed from the cushy wine-colored seats lined up below.
Standing at eye level with the theater’s massive center chandelier, you can admire the depth and dimension of the part of the ceiling that hovers above the balcony — its gilded leaves and flowers, its urns of fruit, its lengths of graceful filigree and its delicate plaster latticework.
On Monday, painters patiently plugged away at the theater’s latest restoration project — repairing, regilding and repainting about one-third of the breathtaking ceiling.
The job, which is supported by a $100,000 award Proctors received through Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Regional Council initiative, is ahead of schedule and is expected to be completed well before the Sept. 15 gala that will launch the theater’s 2012-2013 season.
The money that made the project possible came from the Environmental Protection Fund administered by New York State’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
Tom Alworth, the office’s deputy commissioner, said Proctors is an ideal grant recipient.
“It’s a critical resource for Schenectady, it’s historic. We want to make sure that it lasts forever,” he said.
The ceiling renovation is one phase of an ongoing $849,000 restoration project. Improvements to come will include repairs to the theater’s walls, side boxes, scagliola, balcony, mezzanine and orchestra areas, as well as the men’s and women’s lounges and the Golub Arcade.
The 2,700-seat theater was built in 1925 by Frederick Francis Proctor as a movie house and a vaudeville theater.
The last time it was painted was over 75 years ago, estimated Proctors CEO Philip Morris.
“We think this building was repainted by MGM in 1932 or 34. [MGM] took the building over after Proctor died, and since then, as a not-for-profit, it was never touched,” he said.
Despite the fact that the elegant interior received no updating for years, it stayed fairly well preserved, Morris observed.
“This place never became a disaster. The worst decorative repairs we had to do were along the top of that arch,” he said, pointing to a spot on the wall on the stage-right side of the theater.
Even though there’s no extensive damage to contend with, the renovation process is still a tedious one. Just erecting the scaffolding for the job that’s going on now took over a week.
The ceiling is being carefully restored by EverGreene Architectural Arts of New York City. Five workers have been working for the past three and a half weeks, gilding, shellacking, patching plaster and painting. They plan to finish up on Thursday, said Terry Brackenbury, the company’s foreman.
Workers, heads tipped skyward, meticulously apply tissue-thin, golden metal to yards and yards of delicate, raised plaster filigree. Flakes of the metal shine in their hair and on their shoulders, while larger pieces decorate the plywood floor like discarded Easter candy wrappers.
“This is Dutch metal and it’s all shellacked to keep it from oxidizing. It’s not real gold. Real gold is even thinner,” explained Brackenbury, whose company has done similar work at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, the Albany County Courthouse and at the Capitol.
EverGreene has done work at Proctors on and off for the past 20 years, Morris said.
After this section of the ceiling is completed, there’s only one other major area left to redo — the underside of the balcony — and then the entire auditorium will be restored, he announced, promising that last project will be tackled over the next couple of years.
When he spoke of the restoration work, Morris’ excitement was evident. He smiled broadly and gestured enthusiastically with his arms.
“People spent hundreds of hours to pick the colors, to determine where repairs were needed and we’re executing on that dream, and I just think it’s thrilling,” he said.