Four decades is a long time to wait. That’s how long it’s been since Plattsburgh’s Strand Theatre heard the expectant murmuring of an audience, the sounds of singers and instruments rising from the stage or the pit — or, as the title of the 1960s musical put it, “the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd.” Next weekend, the Strand, which has been under renovation for about four years, will get a welcome burst of energy from performers who were born decades after the theater’s vaudeville-era heyday: students from the nearby SUNY-Plattsburgh.
College senior Jessica Bakeman organized The Pride, a musical-theater revue. It mixes songs from well-known Broadway musicals with monologues based on memories shared by older past and present Plattsburgh residents to track the collective history of the landmark, Bakeman says. Proceeds will benefit the Strand Theatre restoration project, which is led by the North Country Cultural Center for the Arts. The nonprofit bought the building in 2004 to create a center for cinema and performing arts.
The Pride “tells the story of Audrey Weber, who moved with her family across the state for the Strand Theatre; of Fred Keil, the Strand’s [restoration] architect, who took it on as a passion project; and of Honey Light, who remembers her first date there with her late husband, Andre,” Bakeman explains in a press release. Elaborating on the phone, the journalism and English major says she grew fascinated with the theater while writing an article about it for All Points North, the student magazine. “I thought it was so beautiful and inspiring,” she says. “It’s changed so much over the years. When it was torn apart [for renovations], you could see paint from the original through the ’60s.”
The Strand’s highly anticipated restoration began following a 2004 Community Development Office survey that determined the theater could be a cultural anchor for a revitalized downtown — much like its slightly younger and fully restored cousin across the lake, the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts. Funding for the $3 million job has come from donations and matching state and federal grants. Like any historical restoration work, this one has proceeded slowly — not least because “everything we do has to go to Albany for approval,” says Keil, referring to the state’s historic preservation office.
What’s been done so far? “We’ve demolished whatever didn’t belong there, cleaned it up, took out paneling, etc.,” Keil explains. Workers have also recreated windows that had been covered over, fixed up the stage and proscenium — where a concrete wall had been added — renovated the vestibule, lobby and most of the mezzanine, replaced the exterior façade and marquee, and installed fire exits, an elevator and an electrical system.
Next up, continues Keil, are a new roof and “major rosettes” in the ceiling. Everything will be totally restored to the theater’s 1924 glory. In contrast to the art-deco Flynn, he notes, the Strand’s style is Greek Revival.
Despite the long list of accomplishments, the restoration is only about 30 percent done, Keil estimates. Not surprisingly, money is not easy to come by these days. But Keil says the painstaking work is “therapeutic — no one has killed themselves yet,” he offers drily.
For her part, 21-year-old Bakeman is delighted to deliver stories from the Strand’s past just as workers are uncovering and repairing its structure. “We’re bringing in chairs for this performance,” she says, noting that some of the old seats are still in the theater but are damaged. “I actually wanted it to be this way, unfinished, so people can see what potential it has.”
The Pride has a cast of 18, mostly college students, but also four adult community members, one high school student and a 10 year old, Bakeman says. The songs, which she selected from such classic shows as West Side Story, Godspell, A Chorus Line and Annie Get Your Gun, will help move the story along. But the heart of the show is the happy memories of locals who knew the Strand before it declined. Now, even though the place is far from finished, Bakeman believes it will continue to inspire. “What better environment to share the stories of what the theater has meant to so many people than inside the theater itself?” she asks.
Good point. But, Bakeman cautions, there is still no heat in the building — keep that in mind when “dressing for the theater” next weekend.