But don’t take DiRienzo’s word for it. A lesser place like Schenectady, with its rescued and refurbished Proctors Theatre, has witnessed a rebirth of a portion of its downtown into the Arts and Entertainment District. “We have always been interested in enticing the arts to grow in the downtown area,” says Kathy Jarvis, director of marketing and public relations for Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady. “It’s one of the ways the economy is stimulated. We have seen a downtown renaissance.”
In Schenectady that has meant a new pedestrian walkway called J Street, across from Proctors, that features boutiques, a bookstore, shops, restaurants and, that ever-elusive Syracuse dream, free downtown parking.
“There is a parking garage that parks 1,500 cars,” Jarvis says. “It’s free after 5 p.m., with proof that you’re seeing a show at Proctors. So people come in and park, go to dinner, walk around and see a show.”
MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
Gold standard: As the last movie palace in downtown Syracuse, the Landmark Theatre’s glory—including
the stunning auditorium,
the Moorish-inspired lamps hanging from the bar and the room-sized Carrier
air conditioner—never gets old or fails to impress.
Imagine that! Free parking to encourage folks to come downtown, drop $60 at dinner, and enjoy a nice stroll before a performance. Ironic, considering the Landmark was at one time pegged to be a parking lot.
Gladly, much has changed for the glitzy, golden-plastered showplace at 362 S. Salina St., but not without a lot of struggle, negotiations, volunteer hours and last-gasp efforts to save the movie palace that was built in 1928. Once surrounded by at least seven similarly ornate moviehouses, the former Loew’s State Theatre is the remaining Syracuse vestige of a bygone era. Few today would argue for its demolition. But three decades ago, a wrecking ball sat on the stage, its operator anticipating the order to get smashing.
Now the Landmark’s future looks bright with the recent purchase of vacant Clinton Street buildings that surround the venue. Once the stage is expanded outward, the theater can stake its claim as the premier traveling Broadway venue in Central New York. Think of seeing Spamalot, The Lion King and Wicked without the passport hassles of traveling to Toronto.
“We have researched it and that is our niche,” says DiRienzo, who says the project remains $5 million short of its goal. “We have been told, if you build it, they will come. Then we won’t be competing with Turning Stone because they don’t have that type of stage. And while there is that kind of show at the Mulroy Civic Center, the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra is there, Syracuse Opera is there, so you can’t get in a full one- or two-week booking. We are going to be more suited to that.”
The same held true for Proctors, which in the 1970s was taken over by Schenectady for back taxes. “They were planning to destroy the theater,” Jarvis notes, “as many other theaters in Schenectady had been torn down. But it was saved by a group of volunteers who bought it for $1. We reached a point where our success would depend on enlarging our main stage, that the productions were getting larger. For years we were literally squeezing Les Miserables on our stage; it fit by a quarter-inch in the right-hand corner.” Proctors closed in April 2005 for the expansion work and reopened that December. “The stage is now three times as big as it had been.”
With such dreams, the Landmark Theatre marks its 80th anniversary this Friday, Feb. 22, with an 11 a.m. ceremony featuring cake donated by the Purple Hippo Pastry Shop, Route 298 and Taft Road, in East Syracuse, beverages, guided tours and an explanation of the expansion. As for comparisons with Schenectady’s downtown, Syracuse already has a boutique/restaurant/bar neighborhood just around the corner from the Landmark—Armory Square. If only the 300 block of South Salina Street could follow. . .
“We are the cornerstone of downtown,” DiRienzo says. “We are a mecca of culture and development in this community and it is so vital that we preserve our history. Syracuse was once the Broadway of New York state, due to the Erie Canal. A lot of shows got their start in Syracuse and then traveled on down the canal. It’s really upsetting to me that there were once seven theaters along this strip and we are the only one left. We should be preserved.”
Saving a Landmark
MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
Saving face: Had the Landmark Theatre been demolished in 1977, such details as designer Thomas W. Lamb’s carved face and the over-the-top ceiling and balcony work would have been destroyed.
In 1921 moneyman Marcus Loew was desperate to capitalize on that early theater traffic, possible only if he owned a theater here. The head of a New York City entertainment enterprise who was a newspaper publisher at age 16, Loew had money to burn, so he hired well-known architect Thomas W. Lamb to design and build a pleasure palace where the Jefferson Hotel stood at West Jefferson and South Salina streets.
The prolific Lamb also designed Utica’s Stanley Theater, Proctors, the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre in Toronto, RKO Keith’s Theatre in Syracuse and the Berklee Performance Center in Boston. Except for Keith’s, they are all open today. Unfortunately, most of Lamb’s 300 designs were closed or demolished after World War II.
Born in Scotland, Lamb designed the 3,000-seat Loew’s as a Hindu temple. But he got his theologies jumbled. Joining the marriage procession that is the lobby mural were buddhas; Leda, who mated with Zeus disguised as a swan; a missing Taj Mahal replica; various plaster-casted gargoyles, animals and human faces; and an array of Balinese gods and goddesses on the proscenium arch above the stage. Parrots greeted visitors to the upstairs lounge and a fainting room, shaded in Pepto-Bismol pink, was opened off the ladies’ room for those who couldn’t stand the excitement of the show. Because it’s one of the few rooms that locks, DiRienzo had it converted into a liquor closet.
MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTOS
Executive director Denise DiRienzo (below) likes to point out that the replica period lamp (above),
which graces the upstairs lounge, was a gift from the Updowntowners.
During a tour conducted by bluegrass rambler Bill Knowlton, a member of the Landmark’s board of directors and resident historian, he points to a room in the basement off what is now called the Gifford Room, after a portion of a $50,000 Rosamond Gifford Foundation grant financed its renovation. There, behind wooden panels, is the first Carrier air conditioner installed in a public building in Syracuse, its miles of curving, galvanized pipes fashioned to cool hot air.
“These wooden panels came off in the summertime and there is plate glass behind them,” Knowlton points out. “People came down here in the summertime to watch the Carrier air conditioner work. This was a big show. I’ve brought Carrier retirees down here and they have absolutely lost it because they had never seen the original units.”
Of his most favorite creation, Lamb had this to say: “It is like a temple of gold set with colored jewels. The exotic ornaments, colors and scenes are particularly effective in creating an atmosphere in which the mind is free to frolic and becomes receptive to entertainment.”
Knowlton’s views on Lamb’s masterwork are more matter-of-fact: “This is what happens when you have a blank check. When you’re spending someone else’s money, you can go as ornate as you like.”
With unlimited funds, Lamb eventually spent $2 million ($23 million in 2006 dollars) building the Landmark. Striking chandeliers and light fixtures abound, but they don’t throw much light. Knowlton likens the Landmark’s design to that of a cave; you wouldn’t want much brightness anyway, since it would interfere with the show.
In fact, the theater’s lights have stories all their own, starting with the one few have ever seen: the Tiffany chandelier that used to hang in the lobby. Purchased for $40,000 from the Moorish room of the Vanderbilt mansion of Fifth Avenue in New York City, the chandelier was retouched by Louis Tiffany himself before it was installed in Loew’s for the 1928 opening. It hung in the entryway until just after the theater’s first closing on May 27, 1975.
In a classic case of lack of corporate miscommunication, a Loew executive approved the sale without knowing another top official had promised locals that nothing would be disturbed. Local glass dealers David Jenks and Linda O’Leary were given the opportunity to purchase the chandelier for $10,000; they quickly had it dismantled and removed from the lobby. “I write Jenks from time to time,” DiRienzo says, “to follow up on that chandelier. But I have never heard from him.”
Then there are the four Moorish-styled lights hanging above the bar in the lobby. Singer John Denver took one after he performed here in April 1984; yeah, he just took it. DiRienzo has since had it replaced with a copy; if you have time to kill during an intermission, try to figure out which one is not original.
Finally, check out the light fixture that presides over the auditorium; that is original. “The first thing we did when we saved this place,” Knowlton says, “is volunteers got to that chandelier. It lowers all the way down so you can change the bulbs. That was the first thing we got going and, boy, we were so emotional about that.”
Other work completed during the first phase of renovation included restoring the lobby carpeting, removing paint from walls and shining up the gold of others, taking down worn draperies, cleaning the lobby mural and removing, re-upholstering and replacing the red velvet seats inside the auditorium. In addition to expanding the stage, the second renovation phase will see the addition of a much-needed elevator.
While the stories continue of original items missing, lost or stolen (like the replica Taj Mahal), the bottom line is the renovation of the Landmark Theatre meant making peace with the fact that it would never again be its absolutely fabulous self. But it can be awfully close.
“We really are a wonderful theater, we are beautiful,” DiRienzo says. “Every day I see something new. It’s interesting talking to different people who have respected the work of Thomas Lamb and finding out more about historic theaters across the country. With historical and architectural significance like we have, it inspires me to try to do more to preserve and save this for future generations.
“One of my favorite things is when we have school field trips in here,” she continues. “The kids come in—especially the younger ones—and they’re amazed. Their eyes are wide open, and they’re saying, ‘Is this a castle? Who lives here? Look how beautiful it is.’ Even the most jaded of us are refreshed by that.”
On the theater’s opening day, Feb. 18, 1928, thousands of gussied-up Syracusans flocked to South Salina Street to watch Milady’s Fans (a Herald-Journal account of the festivities contained a typo: “Gans” instead of “Fans”), and the unspooling of a silent movie, West Point, starring a young Joan Crawford. The film got going at 11 a.m., when Secretary of War Dwight Davis, sitting in his Washington, D.C., office pushed a button that connected a telegraph wire with the automatic film projectors inside Loew’s.
Photo courtesy of OHA Museum & Research Center
Marquee de sad: The original Loew’s State Theatre entryway was marked by a curved
marquee in this photo that dates to 1942. The current marquee is slated to be upgraded
in the next phase of renovation work.
At the height of its popularity, Loew’s State Theatre attracted thousands to watch movies, vaudeville shows and early Broadway plays. Syracuse’s introduction to television took place at Loew’s, in 1933.
Things started to change for all downtown theaters after 1945, when urban flight sent families packing to the suburbs and TV became the medium of choice. One by one the glorious movie palaces were demolished, department stores relocated to suburban shopping malls and downtown felt like a ghost town. After fits and starts of threatened closures—including one in March 1967 that persuaded the city to reduce the company’s taxes—Loew’s did go dark in 1975. Over the next 15 months, Loew’s won more property tax concessions from the city and reopened the theater. Weary of Loew’s ambiguity, a proactive bunch of citizens formed a rescue committee called Syracuse Area Landmark Theatre (SALT).
On May 3, 1977, the theater received entree to the National Register of Historic Places and three months later realtor Malcolm Sutton, who had meanwhile purchased Loew’s for $125,000, gave SALT 90 days to buy the venue for $65,000, well below market value. A series of benefit concerts were held to help finance renovations, the most popular starring Harry Chapin storytelling to a sold-out audience on Oct. 11, 1977. On June 30, 1978, a transfer of title to Loew’s State Theatre occurred between Sutton, who formed The Sutton Companies, still a Syracuse commercial real estate business, and SALT, and the name of the facility was shortened to the familiar Landmark Theatre. A Nov. 25, 1978, 50th-anniversary celebration/fund-raiser saw Vaudeville return to the stage, including Henny Youngman and Sally Rand.
“She did this Swan Lake thing with a big fan and was the big star of the 1933 World’s Fair,” Knowlton remembers. “It was scandalous because no one knew whether she was nude or not under those ostrich feathers. She was the reason the place was packed. She by then was in her 70s and she still put on one helluva show. The first time she tried to play Syracuse at the height of her career, the city clergy got together and said no way. In 1978, it was like, ‘At last! Sally Rand.’ She stopped the show, went out and said, ‘I want everybody here who has volunteered to save this theater to stand up. I want the rest of you to applaud these people.’ And of all the stars Sally Rand, in a nice little gown, spent the rest of the night upstairs in the lounge signing autographs and visiting with people. She had a line a mile long, they were all people in their 80s.”
Rand is but one famous person to grace the impressive Landmark stage. Gregory Peck called the Landmark his favorite theater, while other old-school entertainers have included Bill Monroe, Butterfly McQueen, Martin Landau and Cab Calloway. More recently Beck, the Flaming Lips, Alison Krauss, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Tori Amos, Dr. John and Vince Gill have performed there. And don’t forget Sesame Street Live, The Doodlebops and Go Diego Go Live!
As the Landmark Theatre moves into the 21st century, its champions expect it to retain its relevance as a downtown attraction. And while both DiRienzo and Knowlton wish the theater were busier, the truth of the matter is that the shows they book run on a cycle, costs always go up and it’s tough to compete against the likes of Verona’s Turning Stone Resort and Casino.
“I have been executive director for 7½ years,” DiRienzo notes, “and they’ve certainly been challenging years. Quite frankly, 9/11 threw this whole industry into a loop. When I first started we had some solid bookings, but Sept. 11 really changed the face of how people in our country do things. Whether it’s artists not wanting to travel—B.B. King only has a bus now—or the cancellations that year. Those hurt us, they put us in a hole financially because we had concerts we were counting on through Christmas.”
Adds Knowlton: “We would love to be more busy. But we do have competition. The Turning Stone has taken some of the acts that could come here. But we can bring in the big names if we have a bigger stage. Considering that this thing almost was a parking lot in 1977, we have survived. We have paid the bills. Some months we’re down, the next month we’re up. We shouldn’t have to run like that, but we do.”
Still, upcoming shows display a variety you won’t find at the Onondaga County War Memorial or Civic Center. Comedian/hip-hopper Katt Williams entertains on March 8, Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance touches down March 13 and the Syracuse Symphony with the Irish Tenors pay a visit March 17. Paul Taylor Dance Group takes the stage March 26. “Paul Taylor is an alumnus of Syracuse University,” DiRienzo explains. “The story goes that he saw his first modern dance show here at the theater when he was a student.” For more information on upcoming Landmark Theatre shows, visit www. landmarktheatre.org.
“With Syracuse there are certain things you can’t do every year. Jerry Seinfeld, David Sedaris, they are on a two-year cycle. We strive for variety because we do have a 30-day exclusive on some of the stuff. But this isn’t a large enough market to do a comedy or a children’s show back-to-back.”
To supplement the stage shows that come in, the Landmark has for years hosted proms, small weddings and convention receptions. “We had a wedding here about two years ago; he had a prom here and he was only getting married here after that experience,” says DiRienzo, who recited vows there herself. “It is a beautiful wedding right here in the lobby. The key is to keep the numbers down.” Because the venue doesn’t have a dance floor or kitchen, DiRienzo will help couples with rentals, referrals and caterers. “It’s so grand already here that you don’t have to decorate much,” she says.
As for proms, Christian Brothers Academy has held theirs at the Landmark for the last 20 years, with Nottingham’s red-carpet affair close behind. “Every Saturday in May is booked right now with proms,” DiRienzo notes. And the theater does reach out regionally, letting conventions know the facility is available for receptions. “That’s where our board of directors comes in because, as a not-for-profit, your board is vital to getting the word out through their circles. It opens up our connections that way.”
Despite the ancillary activities, the Landmark is, first and foremost, a working theater. “A lot of us on the original board were very disappointed at the attitude of too many people who said, ‘What do you want to save that old white elephant for? We’ve got a Civic Center, don’t we? As if we couldn’t coexist with the Civic Center, which we are doing,” says Knowlton. “The idea of this theater going—this is the last downtown movie palace. Rochester tore down all of theirs. Buffalo has one, Utica has one, Albany has one, Schenectady has one.”
And if all goes according to plan, South Salina Street storefronts surrounding the Landmark Theatre will expand Armory Square’s entertainment district, similar to the one that sprang up around Schenectady’s Proctors. “Not only is Proctors doing extremely well,” Knowlton says, “but it has revitalized that section of downtown Schenectady. All of a sudden there are boutiques and shops in all the empty stores because Proctors is a destination point and that’s what this will be, if we ever get this done. Restoring this is the best thing that could ever happen to downtown Syracuse.” q