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Reviving the Old Schenectady: An Artistic Renaissance

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Reviving the Old Schenectady

The Artistic Renaissance of the Electric City

Schenectady in the 1920sEvery time I mention to someone that I’m from around Schenectady, I’m always greeted with some chuckles. It’s either the pronunciation of the name they laugh at, or, if they’re more familiar with the area, how much of a downturn it has taken since its glory days. Despite the bad reputation Schenectady seems to have received since the decline of General Electric (GE), I’m still proud of the restoration it’s gone through. All the new changes are part of a revival going on to promote the arts district. And at the center of it all: Proctors Theatre.

GE Corporation is a pretty incredible association to Schenectady. When Thomas Edison brought state-of-the-art technology directly into the region, the city was an industrial hub. The Stockade is a historical district now, the GE plant now more a museum and education center as it expands. I keep hearing about the wonder the Schenectady used to be, when the population was booming and the economy was thriving. In the Roaring 20s, when entertainment exploded, Schenectady was the place to be.

Proctors was opened in 1926 by Frederick F. Proctor, the “Dean of Vaudeville,” who previously managed multiple small theatres in the northeast. Its success was due to the roaring population brought to town by GE and the American Locomotive Company. The uptown theatre designed with Baroque and Egyptian style by Thomas Lamb attracted all sorts of big names. In the 30s and 40s, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Red Skelton, and Blackstone the Magician were only a few of the notable performers to grace Proctors’ mainstage. Since this was also Hollywood’s golden age, films of the time were shown in the theatre.

Unfortunately, the shift towards television and motion pictures with sound would soon render live theatre somewhat obsolete. GE saw a marked decline and the population growth in Schenectady slowed. Like any symbiotic relationship, the decline of the economy affected growth of the arts. By the 50s and 60s, Proctors was primarily a film venue. It changed hands multiple times until it was finally rescued from demolition by an arts revival team, the Arts Center and Theatre of Schenectady, Inc. (ACTS). The theatre remained closed for about a year, reopening in 1979 with fundraisers and small shows.

The Interior of Proctors TheatreA full-fledged restoration took place with public support in 1980. Famous performers—Vincent Price and the like—as well as patrons, contributed generously to the refurbishment of the seats and other projects. Reconstruction continued through the years, and an expansion project was launched in 2003 worth $30 million. This included various lounges, offices, and the GE theatre. July 2011 held the completion of the Schenectady Heritage Area Visitors Center. With the growth of Proctors, activity in the area has grown tremendously. The area is once again bustling with business and arts-related events.

Schenectady is flourishing in the theatrical arts, as it is home to the Schenectady Light Opera Company (SLOC) and Schenectady Civic. The section of State Street, Broadway, and Jay together form a conglomerate of arts resources. The new Paul Mitchell studio across from Proctors, the Bow Tie Cinema Movieland, and numerous new restaurants have all contributed to the growth of the district. The city hosts many music and dance companies, including the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra, Empire State Youth Orchestra (ESYO), and Northeast Ballet. Union College’s Mandeville Gallery has helped to promote artistic endeavors, and the Hamilton Hill Arts Center features minority artistic talent. Schenectady has also become the center of a host of regional festivals and shows that are both cultural and artistic: the Stockade Villagers Art Show, Jazz on Jay, and Melodies of Christmas are just a few examples.

So when people scoff at Schenectady, it’s only because they don’t realize that the revival has us coming back full-force! The city is roaring with opportunities and relies on local and visitor support for the economy. I encourage you to check out the new improvements.

For more information about the history of Schenectady, visit the Schenectady Museum (www.schenectadymuseum.org) or other online resources at www.discoverschenectady.com.

Kate Smith is an Assistant Editor for The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

Short URL: http://thefreegeorge.com/thefreegeorge/?p=15245

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