Arts council leads charge to save State Theater

(Editor’s note: The following editorial comes from Tupper?Lake Free Press Publisher Dan McClelland.)

The Tupper Lake Arts Council- a group that has vigorously promoted culture and the arts in Tupper Lake since its inception in the early 1990s- is leading the charge to help save Tupper Lake’s well loved State Theater.

The revitalized arts organization has pledged $10,000 to a new fundraising campaign in Tupper Lake to raise $55,000 to help the theater’s operator, Sally Strasser, purchase new digital projection equipment in order to keep the movie theater from going dark as early as this fall.

In addition to its very generous offer, the Tupper Lake Arts Council will match all individual donations up to an additional $5,000 beyond its original gift.

National movie studios will soon stop producing movies on traditional 35-millimeter format and switch to digital. They have demanded that all movie theaters in this country convert to the new format.

The cost of upgrading equipment at the State is about $90,000, thanks to some hard bargaining by Strasser, a seasoned theater operator who has run the place for the past nine years. Digital movie systems, complete with new projection equipment, some new audio equipment to accommodate digital, and air conditioning for the booths to cater to the temperature- sensitive equipment, run about $80,000 per system. Through her vast contacts within the Disney Company, where she worked for many years, Strasser found systems for only $45,000 each.

Toward the needed cash, the State Theater and Strasser won a $35,000 grant through the village of Tupper Lake’s microenterprise program funded by New York state this year. That’s a good start, but more is needed.

The Adirondack North Country Association is currently working with the State Theater and many other north country movie houses to help keep them alive past this fall. Its campaign, initiated earlier this year, is entitled “Go Digital or Go Dark!”

Through the nonprofit organization, all donations to the State Theater become tax deductible.

To take advantage of the Tupper Lake Arts Council’s matching fund campaign, all checks should be made out to “ANCA” and mailed to ANCA headquarters at 67 Main St., Suite 201, Saranac Lake, NY 12983. Please write “State Theater TLAC Match” in the memo line.

According to Town Historian Louis J. Simmons’ “Mostly Spruce and Hemlock,” moving pictures came to Tupper Lake in the early 1900s, with E.O. Bidwell opening the first movie house on Park Street. “At admission rates of 5 cents and 10 cents, business wasn’t all that good, and the early village board minutes carry several references to admonishing Tupper Lake’s No. 1 film tycoon to pay his electric bill or the movies would quit moving.”

Evangeliste Sylvain opened the second local theater and William Hurley and William Myers opened a third. They flourished briefly before both were bought out by William Donovan and his partner John Pervonga. In 1913 Paul Prespare purchased Mr. Pervonga’s interest and the new partnership of Donovan and Prespare acquired a lot on central Park St. to erect the Palace Theater.

It was completed and opened to the public on July 4, 1914, and has been Tupper Lake’s principal movie house ever since, according to the local historian.

Simmons noted too that the theater’s substantial brick fire wall on both sides stemmed two major fires on that block- one in 1957 and another in 1966, which left adjoining buildings the full length of the block in ruins.

In January 1935, the Schine theater chain took a 15-year lease on the old Palace, remodeled and modernized it throughout and reopened as the State Theater. On expiration of the lease Schine renewed for another 10 years, after which the firm closed its operation here.

William Donovan, who many old timers here remember from his days in his photography business on Park Street before it was substantially remodeled as the Gillis Realty building, ran the State for many years. Bill was the son of the original proprietor. Many adults here today fondly remember spending their entire Saturdays as children at the State, where Mr. Donovan ran assorted kids games with prizes in addition to cartoons and feature length films.

Bill sold the property in 1969 to the Tri State Theater Co., which later disposed of it to a Long Island firm, Metro Realty Corp. He continued to manage it.

The State Theater closed its doors in October 1975, leaving Tupper Lake without a theater for the first time in 70 years.

It sat empty and idle in the subsequent years.

In February 1979, 16 people attended a public meeting of a new community committee here entitled “Committee on Educational, Social and Cultural Matters,” spearheaded by the late Fran Collier. The committee was one of several created that year by Jim Ellis, chairman of the Tip Top group (Tupper Improvement Program To Organize and Promote).

Collier’s committee applied for a grant to the state Council on the Arts with hope of establishing a Tupper Lake Arts Council, the focus of which would be concerts of folk music, films and summer theater.

Later that month the fledgling group decided on “Tupper Lake Presents ” as its name. The late Beverly Brownell, a member of the committee, and others began canvassing other community groups for financial help to underwrite its first event.

The group’s work blossomed from there. In its first year Tupper Lake Presents was responsible for hosting 25 successful programs with musicians, theater groups and craft workshops. It won two significant grants and enrolled more than 100 members and their families to its membership. The group was a big success from the outset.

In 1980, Tupper Lake Presents opened an office on the second floor of the Free Press building, that was staffed by a local employee working under a government grant.

In 1982, the State Theater building was purchased from businessman Ray Jenkins for $6,000 by Tupper Lake Presents, using a generous gift from Mr. and Mrs. George Dill of Big Wolf Lake. A fundraising goal of $60,000 was set and restoration work began almost immediately with an eye to having the theater ready for sale or lease to an interested operator by the next summer.

“Any money realized by Tupper Lake Presents from lease payments or the purchase of the business by an operator would be used by that group for other community projects,” Janet Reichert, co-owner of Ginsberg’s Department Store and chairwoman of the Pride Theater Project, a subcommittee of Tupper Lake Presents, promised that year.

It took actually two years for the project to be completed, and it was the product of many donations and many hours of volunteer toil by many people here. One successful fundraiser was the auctioning off of a new Chevy Blazer, which netted the committee about $30,000. A number of local people also backed a $20,000 mortgage on the building negotiated at Key Bank, which had a branch here at that time.

On July 7, 1984, the State Theater reopened for the first time since 1975 after a lease was negotiated with Theater Operator Jeff Szot of Potsdam, who later bought the building and ran it for many years until Ms. Strasser’s purchase of the premises on April 1, 2004.

The Tupper Lake Arts Council remained a careful steward of the original lease and purchase funds following the restoration of the State Theater. Its members believe the “Go Digital or Go Dark” campaign is a perfect fit with its mission of bringing the arts and culture to our remote community. The continuation of the State Theater is an element that is vital to that mission.

Information about the new campaign may be gained by calling any of its active supporters and volunteers, who include Donna Sloan, who was very helpful with some of the research in our comment today, Meredith Warwick, Trish Anrig, Karen Greiner, Susan Svoboda, Randy Jones, Eileen Hayes and Beth Johnson. They’ll be all there to welcome the public and answer questions at tomorrow’s press conference.

The State Theater has been a part of the commerce of the uptown business district for the past 99 years. It has brought untold enjoyment to thousands and thousands of movie-goers over those years. During our summer seasons it routinely draws thousands from nearby campgrounds and vacation homes to our town. It stands as a reminder of a better day on Park Street that many here hope will return very soon when the State welcome new commercial and retail neighbors.

Please join the Tupper Lake Arts Council for more news of its new campaign on Thursday evening and do everything you can to help them and the State Theater in this weeks ahead.