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Jonathan Newell, founder and executive and artistic director of the Hudson River Music Hall Productions Inc., sits in the balcony inside the Hudson River Music Hall Strand Theatre on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, in Hudson Falls, N.Y. (Paul Buckowski/Times Union)
The exterior of The Park Theater in Glens Falls, N.Y. (Courtesy of Empire State Development)
Ben Miller is the operations director at The Park Theater in Glens Falls. The theater, built in 1911, was rescued from demolition in 1984 and reopened to the public in 2018. (Briana Lyons | The Yellow Note )
The newly renovated Park Theater in Glens Falls reopened Wednesday. (Courtesy of Empire State Development)
The Park Theater in Glens Falls, N.Y. also runs a hospitality business that handles venue rentals, on- and off-site catering and special events, including weddings (pictured). Running both hospitality and performing arts businesses has proved a winning formula for The Park. (Courtesy of Sandra Lynn Photography)
The flexible performance space at The Park Theater in Glens Falls, N.Y. can seat up to 200 when the chairs are set up in traditional rows. Operations Director Ben Miller said the theater seeks out programming that fits the intimate vibes of the space. (Courtesy of Empire State Development)
The Matt Niedbalski Trio featuring Rob Lindquist and Steven Kirsty perform at The Park Theater in Glens Falls. The intimate venue hosts programs that match its vibe. (Courtesy of The Park Theater)
A view looking out from the stage inside the Hudson River Music Hall Strand Theatre on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, in Hudson Falls, N.Y. During the pandemic lockdowns in 2020, the Strand streamed 113 concerts. (Paul Buckowski/Times Union)
A view of box office inside the Hudson River Music Hall Strand Theatre on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, in Hudson Falls, N.Y. After a solid 2022 season, The Strand is back to its typical schedule of shows five to seven days a week. (Paul Buckowski/Times Union)
A view of a mural on the wall in the balcony at the Hudson River Music Hall Strand Theatre on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, in Hudson Falls, N.Y. (Paul Buckowski/Times Union)
For many small performing arts venues just hitting their strides at the top of 2020, the shutdowns at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic derailed — and in some cases, permanently halted — all forward momentum.
Yet along a three-and-a-half mile stretch of the Hudson River, two historic theaters hardly broke their stride: The Park Theater in Glens Falls, which first opened in 1911 and had its grand reopening in April 2018, and the Strand Theatre in Hudson Falls, a 100-year-old vaudeville theater that reemerged as a fully operational performing arts venue in late 2019.
Over the next two weeks, the 200-seat Park Theater will host its Third Thursday Jazz, which features a rotating roster of regional musicians; South Glens Falls High School’s drama club fundraiser cabaret and gala; Reese Fulmer & the Carriage House Band, a Capital Region folk group; and New York City based comedian Caitlin Cook. The schedule is a reflection of The Park programming for its intimate venue and Glens Falls community, said Ben Miller, operations manager.
“Looking forward, I think we’ve got our best year yet to come,” Miller said.
The Park Theater, 14 Park Street, Glens Falls
And in Hudson Falls, the Strand kicks off its 100th anniversary celebration with a four-day silent film festival, which includes Buster Keaton’s “The General” and Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” followed by a jam-packed week of big band sound from The North Country Jazz; a metal band covering Nine Inch Nails; a tribute to Johnny and June Cash; and the Strand’s weekly open mic night.
While the pandemic shutdowns were challenging for both theaters, serendipitous timing of other projects within the organizations kept the closures from becoming dire. It allowed the venues to focus on preparing a strong rebound so they could continue being primary entertainment venues for their respective cities.
When the pandemic hit, The Park was about one year into its newest venture, establishing The Park Theater Foundation, Miller said. The nonprofit organization was set up to oversee the theater’s artistic programming, including productions and education. Until 2019, The Park operated both its artistic programming and Park Street Hospitality – out of which the on- and off-site catering and venue rentals run – as for-profit ventures.
It was really only in that first year that we realized the need to go in the non-profit direction for the art side of our mission,” Miller said.
The closures gave The Park a chance to reflect on what did and didn’t work in its first two years of operation and iron out the details of the new nonprofit and its board, which hadn’t had a chance to establish momentum since forming in January 2019. In a weird way, Miller said, the time to assess and regroup was necessary for the theater. Plus, the foundation made The Park eligible for crucial donations and government issued relief funding.
“It definitely helped us weather the storm a little bit,” Miller said.
Thanks to the timing of grant-funding from pre-pandemic applications, a bit of financial luck also hit the Strand Theatre at a critical time, Artistic Director Jonathan Newell said. Right before lockdowns began, over $1 million of grant funds that had been stalled started rolling in. That not only kept the Strand afloat but also supported the theater’s efforts to bring back audiences.
Since Hudson River Music Productions, a group co-created by Newell, first bought the Strand in 2016, the theater has been creative about its concerts. As soon as the space had code clearance for 50 people, the Strand held its first concert, building to its full, 400 seat capacity for its grand opening in 2019. That programming mentality translated to its pandemic offerings.
“The minute we could have 10 people … we had a band on stage, and then we had an audience of five all sitting in different spots,” Newell said.
That concert, along with 112 others, were streamed throughout lockdown and the gradual easing of restrictions. The series helped support local artists — a cause important to Newell and the Strand — who are all musicians. It also set the Strand on a steady path to return to full operation.
“That’s my favorite span of concerts,” said Newell, who’s been producing concerts for 12 years. “We could feel how much (the musicians) needed to be together and play.”
For The Park, its structure helped it return to in-person programming, even before most other entertainment venues. At the time, Doc’s, a restaurant named after Dr. Harold Kirkpatrick, the plastic surgeon who bought the building in the mid-80s to save it from demolition, operated from inside the theater. When restaurants got the cautious green light to resume restricted operations, it allowed The Park to offer dinner and movie nights.
“We found ways to navigate regulations and navigate what we felt like we could do safely within the balance of both of those industries together,” Miller said. “I don’t think that we want to go back there anytime soon, but we did learn a lot and it challenged us to be creative.”
The Park also hosted a number of outdoor events, an effort Miller said was one of the first attempts in Glens Falls during the pandemic to support the struggling creative economy.
As The Park enters its fifth year, it’s building off what it discovered during lockdown. It is continuing to look beyond the walls of the building to bring more of its programming to the community and expand the artistic nonprofit, including a new arts education program with the Glens Falls and South Glens Falls School Districts. The theater continues to support local artists, including through its new “Live and Local” songwriters showcase.
And the Strand, after a solid 2022, is back to its regular schedule of five to seven shows a week, Newell said. Programs range from small, lobby concerts by local musicians not looking to tour but still wanting to perform to Molly Hatchet, and the theater continues to be a “community center for the arts.”
Katherine Kiessling covers arts and entertainment for the Times Union. The New Jersey native has written for syracuse.com, Central New York Magazine and Charleston City Paper. You can reach her at email@example.com.
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