hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture December 2019 - January 2020


Curtain rises at restored theater

In Hudson Falls, community rallies to revive a long-dormant venue



Jonathan Newell stands at the ticket booth of the newly restored Strand Theatre in Hudson Falls, N.Y. Newell is executive director of Hudson River Music Hall Productions, which led a years-long effort to revive the long-dormant theater at 210 Main St. Joan K. Lentini photo


Contributing writer


Every seat was filled at the Strand Theatre on the night of Oct. 19.
A hush fell over the packed house of 350 patrons who had come for the grand opening weekend of the newly restored theater. The spotlights illuminated the multi-tiered crystal chandelier in the center of the ceiling. Pianist Ted Firth began a rolling intro on the grand piano, and recording artist Tony DeSare appeared, took command of the microphone at center stage and broke into a spirited take on “Get Happy” -- a fitting number for the occasion.

DeSare’s first song made real a longtime dream for many in the audience: the revival of the historic theater as a community arts space in the center of Hudson Falls.

The restoration of the nearly century-old Strand Theatre became official this fall with a series of celebratory performances Oct. 18-20. But the grand reopening of the building, which hadn’t been used as a theater since the 1960s, was nearly a decade in the making, the result of unwavering support and enthusiasm from a community that had long been known more as a faded center of manufacturing than as a hub of the arts.

“I hadn’t performed in Hudson Falls since high school,” said DeSare, a nationally known singer and songwriter with four top-selling jazz albums. “I have had the good fortune to play great concert halls all over the world. But there was definitely something uniquely special about having a venue in my hometown where I could share what I’ve been doing with everyone.”


Arts group finds venue
The forces that led to the Strand’s revival were set in motion in 2010, when a core group of local enthusiasts banded together with the idea of revitalizing Hudson Falls through the arts. Among the prime movers was Jonathan Newell, who’s now the theater’s executive and artistic director.
Newell, a musician who’s a native of the village, had recently moved back to the region after a number of years teaching piano and performing in New York City. He joined forces with others, including record producer Stu Kuby, SUNY Adirondack business professor Nicholas Buttino and the late Judith Johnson, a longtime state auditor with a passion for the arts.

Together, they organized a nonprofit Hudson River Music Hall Productions Inc. The group’s mission is “to enhance the quality of life and the surrounding communities by providing performance and educational opportunities through music, dance, theater and the visual arts.”
Initially the group began organizing live music and theater productions in the old Washington County courthouse on Main Street through a partnership with George Dunnigan, who owned that building.

After about a year, the nonprofit acquired a former telephone company building behind the old courthouse, on Maple Street, and renovated it, creating facilities to host musical performances, art exhibits, classes and other programs. The group still uses that structure, the Hudson River Music Hall, for its offices and some programming.

The community’s response was enthusiastic, and the new nonprofit soon was offering more than 150 events each year. But the space for performances was comparatively small.
After a show one evening, Mike Keenan, the Kingsbury town justice, mentioned to Newell that the town office building at 210 Main St. had once housed a long-forgotten theater. (The town of Kingsbury includes the village of Hudson Falls.)

A few days later, Newell stopped by the town hall to buy dump stickers and decided to ask Town Clerk Holly Mabb about the building’s history.

“She pointed to a door behind her, which I thought was a coat room,” Newell recalled. “It led to a grand staircase.”

Intrigued, Newell climbed to the top and discovered he was standing on the balcony of an ornate theater.

“It was like a page from the C.S. Lewis book, ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,’” he recalled. “It was absolutely amazing what was behind the door of the town clerk’s office. And it was a hidden treasure. I grew up in Hudson Falls and had no idea there was a theater here. When I first saw it that day, it was dark and dingy, but you could see the bones of it.”
Keenan, the town justice, had seen the potential of the space too.

“I was always amazed that everything about the theater was intact, from the original carpeting on the staircase to the original paint,” he said. “I just thought it should be put to use.”

A dream of restoration

In that a-ha moment on the balcony, in the silence of the dormant theater, Newell began to envision the space’s inherent potential to fulfill the mission of Hudson River Music Hall Productions.

The timing proved perfect, as he soon learned the town was interested in moving into larger headquarters.

“The town of Kingsbury liked the idea of using the building as an arts space for a boon to economic development,” Newell said. “The next step was convincing the taxpayers.”
What followed were four years of town meetings and presentations, plus the town moving to new expanded headquarters at 6 Michigan St. and declaring the old theater building, at 210 Main St., to be surplus property.

In 2016, the nonprofit group was able to buy the old theater building for $175,000.
Though much about the original theater was intact, including the stage and decorative circular cornices around the lighting fixtures, significant renovations were needed.

“The minute we bought the building, we lifted the drop ceiling and saw all the ornate work underneath,” Newell said.

Built as a vaudeville theater in 1923, the Strand spent most of its life as a movie house before closing in the late 1960s. Newell said the town actually saved the building from demolition by buying it and repurposing it as the Kingsbury Town Hall in 1969.

A vision takes shape

After taking possession of the building in October 2016, Hudson River Music Hall Productions held its first open house that November. In December, the group screened “It’s a Wonderful Life” in the lobby.

By March 2017, live music was being performed on the theater’s stage, albeit with the help of space heaters. But audiences were enthused.

Newell tapped into his network of contacts in the music world and arranged local performances by acts such as the folk-rock band Aztec Two-Step and Peter Asher, the British guitarist who is best known as a producer for James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt and other big names.
As the renovations progressed, so did the roster of performances as well as interest and support in the community. The theater has relied on a combination of corporate funding, individual donations, and a lots of volunteerism to make its transformation from a dusty, unused vault to a dazzling and inviting space for theater, dance performances, movies and music.

“Our first money was a $100,000 grant from the Sandy Hill Foundation,” an organization set up in the 1950s by the family that ran a local iron and brass works, Newell said. “It gave us legitimacy.”
The funds helped the group hire architects from New York City who had expertise in theaters and were able to assess the space and how to make the best use of it.

The original theater had no backstage area to speak of. Under the advice of the architects, a backstage space was created for instrument and prop storage and also to allow performers to discreetly cross from one stage entrance to another during a show. Beyond this new area is a green room for performers, complete with a coffee bar and private restroom. Above the new backstage area is a warehouse-sized space for rehearsals and more storage.

“We wanted to get as much out of this space as possible,” Newell said, pointing to the stark white wall at the back of the stage. The wall serves as a movie screen when films are shown.

The theater’s 350 seats were a serendipitous gift from the Whitehall school district, which was discarding 600 theater seats in a renovation project.

“The construction manager called me after reading an article in The Post-Star and said we could take whatever we needed,” Newell recalled.

Several area residents – including Mary Ellen Barlow, Tim and Jane Havens, and Newell’s mother, Nanette -- stored the theater seats in their garages until construction at the theater advanced to the point the seats could be installed.


Volunteers for a cause
The building’s foyer and lobby, which was kept in the original, crimson-hued colors, were rehabbed by six retired local contractors: Rick Conley, Bill West, Dave Larrow, Dave Kearns, Dave Wilcox and John Geer.

“They were so dedicated,” Newell recalled. “They came every day for three years just like they were punching in to a job.”

Hudson Falls resident Dan Lynch painted the foyer and theater and did all the faux-finish work.
Now the walls of the lobby are adorned with framed historical photos of the theater in its heyday, including a black-and-white image of a visiting Ronald Reagan. In his role as host of the 1950s television show “General Electric Theater,” the future president toured the country visiting General Electric Co. facilities, one of which was a major employer in Hudson Falls. The photo shows Reagan posing with the Hudson Falls police chief and two village patrolmen.

John Schultz and Delia Bowstead, two former set designers for NBC who now live in Hudson Falls, restored and repainted the three-dimensional florets in the lobby’s ceiling.

“We wanted the lobby to be a nod to the building’s history, but with a new look,” Newell said, pointing to the heirloom Swarovski chandelier donated by area businessman Mark Abodeely.
“I wanted something special for the lobby that would be the focal point when you walk in,” said Abodeely, who went to high school with Newell. “I’m not a musician but have a passion for music, and this was my way of giving back to the community.”

Abodeely liked the look of the crystal chandelier so much that he didn’t stop with the lobby. He launched “the chandelier project,” working with a lighting consultant to find appropriately elegant fixtures for the theater’s entryway and the theater hall itself, where a massive, five-foot chandelier was unveiled on Oct. 18 at the start of the Strand’s grand opening weekend.


Transforming a village
Performances are only part of the Strand’s mission. Goals for a second phase of the theater’s redevelopment include completing the backstage area, creating office space on the second floor, and setting up a music library and a listening space for the stacks of vintage LP’s that now are housed in the lobby.

Hudson River Music Hall Productions also aims to offer teaching space for Amorak, a local nonprofit, to provide free music lessons, dance instruction and yoga and other classes to students ages 8-15 from Hudson Falls and Fort Edward. Newell said the group is intent on nurturing up-and-coming talent.

The Java Shop, with its floor-to-ceiling glass walls overlooking the foyer, has a self-serve coffee bar, a turntable for listening to LP records, and tables and chairs for smaller performances such as live acoustic shows held at 7 p.m. every Monday and an open-mike night held every Wednesday.

And now that the Strand is officially open for business, Newell said performances of all varieties are being booked regularly. He said some of the people who were instrumental in supporting the Strand have even become concert promoters of sorts, helping to book performers because of their love of the new arts space.

Abodeely and Keenan, for example, both actively book and promote shows at the theater.
“It’s great for the Strand, because Mark and Mike love different types of music, so it brings in variety,” Newell said. “We encourage the artists who come here to play what they love.”
The performers, he added, love both the design and the acoustics of the theater.

“It’s a grand space and also intimate,” Newell said. “The stage is only 25 feet from the balcony. I used to have to beg when were at the courthouse, but we’re booked pretty regularly now.”
The goal is still the same as when Hudson River Music Hall Productions got started nearly a decade ago – “to reinvigorate the community and get a new identity, a new brand for Hudson Falls,” Newell said. “We just didn’t see it going back to being an industrial town.”

Keenan said the theater project has surpassed all expectations.
“Five or six years ago, I never imagined it would become what it is today,” he said. “But I never thought it was a crazy idea, because the theater was intact -- it just had to be uncovered.”
Newell said the project had its doubters in the early stages.

“But we stuck it out, for the community and especially the kids growing up in the community,” he said. “We were committed.”

And DeSare stressed that having a local performing arts venue will open up new possibilities for his hometown.

“It has synergistic effects,” he explained, “because it will be consistently bringing people to town who now have a reason to visit Hudson Falls.”


Visit www.mystrandtheatre.org for more information about upcoming events at the Strand Theatre in Hudson Falls.