Tour of Proctors Theater

A few weeks ago, I saw a post on Proctors Theater’s Facebook page announcing that they’d be having a tour that was free to the public one Saturday morning. Since Alex works most Saturdays and I’ve got nothing to do, I thought it would be an enjoyable way to spend a weekend morning, so I added it to my calendar.

I arrived to the theater late that morning (of course), and I missed the first few minutes of the lead-volunteer-lady’s spiel about the history of Proctors. I did write down some notes in my iPhone (because I’m a huge nerd) and this is what I caught:

  • The theater was the last theater that Frederick Francis Proctor built and was completed in 1926 at a cost of $1.5 million.  It was built as a Vaudeville theater and is called a “Ruby Palace Theater”.
  • F.F. Proctor died just 3 years later in 1929 leaving a $20 million estate and a 600 handwritten page will (which Proctors Theater has in their archives).  John Ringling (of Ringling Brothers Circus) and George M. Cohen (of Vaudeville fame) were pallbearers at his funeral.
  • Just one year later, in 1930, the first television broadcast ever occurred – broadcasting from the GE lab (down the street) to the stage at Proctors theater.
  • Television proved to be the downfall of the grand theaters of the time and Proctors transferred ownership a few times – from FF Proctor to RKO Pictures and again a few times until it was owned by a private businessman.  Eventually, the city of Schenectady seized it for back taxes owed.
  • The theater sat empty in the 70s; the building was derelict with immense water damage.  It was due to be torn down until a group of citizens formed the Arts District of Schenectady and restoration began.
  • Proctors reopened on 1/3/79 with a performance by Blackstone, a magician.  The show was sold out, but unfortunately the plumbing wasn’t ready for the full house and water came rolling down the aisles.  During the show, there was a huge blizzard and when folks were ready to leave they found their cars stranded in the snow.  Blackstone used a 650 ton elephant in his show and they used the elephant to pull cars out of the snow.
  • The marble in the interior of the theater is all faux marble: plaster was poured with dark ribbons pulled through to create the marble effect.
  • The balcony is the largest cantilever structure that was built at that time – and was built that way to ensure that no orchestra seat had its view obstructed by support beams for the balcony.  The building inspector was very concerned about the structural integrity and, in order to test it, he had 150 pound sandbags brought in and placed in each seat in the balcony.  The distance from the orchestra floor to the bottom of the balcony was measured before and after placing the sandbags in order to ensure the integrity of the structure.

After the lead-volunteer-lady finished her history lesson, she divided us up into four groups, one for each volunteer who was there to lead.  I was placed into the group with the lead-volunteer-lady, which I was happy about since she seemed very knowledgable and had proven herself to be an engaging speaker.

We headed up to the balcony first and she began talking about the mens room.  It seems like an odd place to start a tour, but it was the first room that we came to at the top of the balcony.  She noted that there is a large organ that we would be seeing in concert later on that day, but there was also a “small organ in the men’s room”, which she invited us to see.  I, of course, giggled at this, which won me some disapproving looks from a group of prudish old ladies.  But, come on, I dare you not to giggle at “take a look at the small organ in the men’s room.”  See?  Still makes me giggle every time.

After the tour of the men’s room (lol) we popped into the tiny museum area they have in the balcony.  They have artifacts from Proctors history on display along with a rotating display of vaudeville era items.  The exhibit this time centered around Shirley Temple.  I’ve been in the museum a few times before, so I didn’t spend too much time in there.  I did snap some pictures, though.

We moved on down the balcony to view the large mural on the back wall.  I couldn’t really hear the lead-volunteer-lady when she was giving us details of the mural, but I think it’s something to do with… oh nevermind.  It was something that sounded familiar at the time but I can’t remember it now, even looking back at the pictures.  We finished our tour of the balcony with a quick jaunt through the ladies room (where the tweens on the tour with their moms all preened in the mirror), and then went out to look at the stage/main theater area.  It really is a gorgeous theater.

After the balcony, we went downstairs and on stage where we got a behind the scenes view while a show was setting up for that night.  We continued back stage to the dressing rooms.  We saw the new dressing areas first, including the portable dressing tables that they use to reconfigure dressing areas to suit the needs of the productions as they come in.  One of the shows (I can’t remember which one started it now – maybe it was Spamalot) started a tradition of decorating a dressing table with images from the show.  I snapped pictures of almost all of the tables that were decorated – I thought they were really cool.

The tour concluded in some of the newer areas of the Theater – a quick walk through the GE Theater area and the new Key Bank Hall.  The details of the old bank that they were able to preserve in the Key Bank Hall were really charming.  It would be a really cool place for an event.

After the tour, there was a brief concert on the organ, Goldie.  I thought I’d skip out on that part, but at the last-minute I decided to stay and I was really glad I did.  The concert, with an explanation of how they acquired Goldie and how an organ like that works was fascinating!  I didn’t realize how many different instruments the organ could either play (via pneumatics) or simulate.  There are wind instruments, percussion, sound effects, “strings”, piano, and of course the normal organ, among others.  We were invited to come up on stage to see Goldie up close when the concert was finished and were allowed to “play” the organ as best as we could figure out.  I was fascinated by the sound effect buttons underneath and played the car horn and siren buttons.

The entire tour and concert lasted over two hours – and was entirely free!  I was nervous going to a tour on my own (and I was certainly the only person in my age group there), but it turned out to be a great way to spend a morning.