Theater is a local specialty

Sitting in on a recent rehearsal for the Community Theatre Players’ production of “The Wizard of Oz,” it hit us yet again how surprisingly good the local drama scene is.

It’s one thing to have some talented lead actors, and we do here, but at the rehearsal it was easy to see how deep the pool of talent and passion runs, all the way through the cast and the behind-the-scenes crew, from director to set designers. “Oz,” which opens Thursday and runs through Sunday (see Thursday’s Weekender section for details), is a professional operation, like all CTP productions.

Theater has been a local specialty for a long time. It’s gotten to be self-sustaining. Many children learn it at a young age here and later grow into leadership roles. The strength of the scene also attracts many actors to move to the Tri-Lakes. For many, it’s one more aspect of a high quality of life.

Where did our area originally come by this level of talent, devotion and organization? It’s hard to say, since it’s been here for such a long time. Back when Saranac Lake was a cosmopolitan tuberculosis-cure hotspot, summer theater thrived from the Roaring 1920s all the way into the ’60s. The village’s arts scene declined along with its economy after medications made its TB industry obsolete, but people’s passion for the stage remained. CTP started in the ’70s, Pendragon Theatre was founded in 1980, and the Town Hall Players thrived in the ’80s in the Harrietstown Town Hall, the same place “Oz” will be performed. In the last decade, the Upper Jay Arts Center has thankfully played host to a class of plays that’s more literary than the standard fare.

Then there are all our local school and children’s theater plays, which are consistently done at a high level. Children get the best kind of teachers in these productions.

Venues come and go. It was in a tent by the river, behind the Main Street banks, that Rosalind Russell dazzled audiences as a vivacious 22-year-old. It was in the Odd Fellows Hall, which stood where the Hotel Saranac parking lot is now, that Bibbe Hansen, at age 9 or 10 (reports vary), portrayed Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker.” (She later became an Andy Warhol favorite and mother of pop musician Beck.) The big theaters in each village – the Palace, the State and the Pontiac – hosted plays and music shows until they were converted to cinemas. The Lake Placid Center for the Arts was built as the area’s highest-quality theater venue, and then came Pendragon Theatre, first hosting plays downtown before moving to its current location. In recent years, the Adirondack Shakespeare Company has done wonderful work in public parks and other outdoor places.

It’s not the theaters that make for a great drama scene. It’s the people, from actors to the audience. That’s borne out by the fact that the “Oz” crew is working through the limitations of the Harrietstown Hall – a great place for the viewer to see a play, but it doesn’t have much backstage. They’re pulling it off admirably, however, with their efforts, knowledge and skill.

At the “Oz” rehearsal, it occurred to us that a little more than 100 years ago, before movies, television and the Internet, this was what people did for fun. Not bad. Drama is one of the most basic of human entertainments.

We encourage you to treat yourself and check out a local play. We think you’ll be glad you did.