Adirondack Theaters

Adirondack Journal

It is always special to see movies in the theater. Getting out of the house! Seeing your favorite actor on the big screen! Indulging in an array of yummy snacks!

There are some exceptional theaters in the Adirondacks. The Palace Theatre located in downtown Lake Placid, New York, lives up to its name with ornate hand-painted detailing in the foyer, lobby and main theater. When the theater opened in 1926, there were 926 seats divided between the orchestra and a spacious balcony.

The Palace Theatre is home to the only theater organ north of Albany, N.Y., one of the only original installations remaining in New York State. The organ, a 3/7 Robert Morton, was installed in 1926, and accompanied silent films. With the emergence of “talkies” the organ fell out of use. It was restored in 1999 and once again serves as the accompaniment for silent film festivals. ( www.theaterorgans.com ) In 1983 the Palace became a multi-plex; the balcony was closed off for a second screen and three years later split in half for a third screen. The main theater with organ remains intact. (Adirondack Life, Sept/Oct 1999)

At one-time movie theaters were a common feature of most small towns in America. Many were social and architectural anchors of a community; this was also true of Adirondack theaters. (Adirondack Life, Sept/Oct. 1999) Many small town theaters now find it more and more difficult to compete with big-box cinemas, and have closed. Adirondack theaters face the same plight, although some have still managed to keep their doors open.

The earliest Adirondack theaters were built for stage performances, and because of the isolation of the region, was constructed well after others on the eastern seaboard. The first theaters were built along the southern fringe of the Adirondacks and moved north from 1850 to 1915. The success of a theater was dependent on good transportation routes and population, both of which were slow to develop. (Adirondack Life, Nov/Dec 1992) Many theaters opened in the Adirondacks in the 1920s, some hosting live stage acts as well as silent films. The theaters served as centerpieces of their communities and entertained local residents as well as visitors to the region.

The movie theater business boomed in the 1920s and 30s, and the Adirondack region, which would seem far removed from “glitz,” played a role in the movie industry. In 1913, Caribou Bill, a marathon sled driver from Alaska who enjoyed brief popularity in film circles, set up a crude film studio on Edgewood Road in the village of Saranac Lake, N.Y. At the time movies about the Klondike gold rush were very popular. Bill created a simple set with a saloon and trading post front, designed to resemble an Alaskan town. The hardships of running a studio in Saranac Lake became evident, and it was moved to Plattsburg in 1917. (Adirondack Life, July/Aug 1994)

Saranac Lake, whose population had grown immensely in the 1920s because of cure cottages and a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients, became a vacation destination as well and hosted many well-known personalities of the time. A prominent figure in the theater world was among the seasonal residents. William Morris, the founder of the famous theatrical-booking agency that launched the careers of a number of stars, owned a camp on Lake Colby and often hosted some of the top performers of the day. (Adirondack Life, July/ Aug 1994)

Morris was also responsible for calling on a number of prominent stars to perform benefits for local causes. Some of the “talent” included Eddie Cantor, Western star Tom Mix, Sir Harry Lauder, Irish tenor Fiske O’Hara, and Bugs Baer. (Adirondack Life, July/Aug 1994)

Saranac Lake was home to not one, but two theaters. The Pontiac, featured “all-talking pictures” after a Vitaphone Movietone sound system was installed in 1929. The “tent theater,” founded by Ed Casey, hosted live performances and a company of actors during the summer.

Improved transportation and higher costs to show first-run films have contributed to the demise of local cinemas. The small year-round population of the region has made it more and more difficult for theaters to keep doors open all year, dependent on ticket and popcorn sales alone. Some chose to close their doors through the winter months, showing movies only in the summer months when tourists could fill seats. Others have closed forever, the buildings re-purposed for other uses. The former theater in Long Lake, N.Y. is now a hardware store.

The community of Indian Lake fought against the loss of the Lake Theater, which opened in 1938, and was privately owned until 2006. The theater was open seasonally in its final few years of operation and finally shut down. Residents of the community realized the huge impact that the closure of the theater would have on the town. They recognized the need for thriving community spaces in order to make the Adirondacks more livable and to bring about economic revitalization. In November 2007 the group started fundraising in the immediate area, soliciting support from residents in Indian Lake, Blue Mountain Lake, Long Lake, Raquette Lake, and Sabael, N.Y. In sixty days, over 500 people — visitors, seasonal and permanent residents — pledged $170,000. The theater was purchased in February of 2008. In order to operate, the theater has attained non-profit status and relies heavily on private donors, selling advertisements, and some grant funding. (Ben Strader, Board Chair of the Indian Lake Theater, indianlaketheater.org) In 1995 a community non-profit group also saved the Glove Theater built in 1914, now a major landmark in Gloversville, N.Y.

Other still-operating Adirondack theaters include the Strand Theater in Old Forge, built in the 1920s and the State Theater at Tupper Lake. Each entertains locals and tourists and sells an assortment of yummy snacks – just like their historic predecessors.

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