to fort, back to church and then to theater:
through war, fire and vicissitudes, the building
now known as the Fort Salem Theater has endured
for nearly two and a half centuries.
In 1761 Joshua Conkey and James Turner journeyed
from their home in Massachusetts and discovered
a lush valley fed by a brook the Indians called
Osoma ("stream of shining pebbles"),
after the stones glistening beneath the clear
The Massachusetts men saw a good future here,
and the next year brought their families back
to live. They built homes and a school, and organized
the First Presbyterian Church, the first to be
incorporated in the county. There were fifty-two
members in the congregation.
In 1774 a proper edifice was begun, but before
it was completed, or a pastor secured even to
preach in it, war stormed through the valley
in the person of General Burgoyne, the fierce
Le Loup and his Indian raiders. Patriot forces
occupied what there was of the new church building
and built a stockade and barracks for the troops.
Known variously as the White Creek Fort, Fort
William, and Fort Salem, it was burned in the
late summer of 1777, reportedly by a "domestic" enemy,
Thus, the New Englanders' first church was destroyed
before it ever came to fruition. This was the
first of a series of destructive fires which
might have discouraged a less stalwart group.
Their second edifice was quite magnificent. Running
lengthwise to the street, there were entrances
on three sides, galleries all around, forty-six
boxed-in wooden pews, and a square steeple large
enough to hold the session room. This building
burned to the ground sometime between 1822 and
1836, when a new structure was completed.
In 1840, the congregation gathered in dismay
once more to see their church in flames. This
time all the early records were lost, but the
walls were left standing. Undaunted, the Presbyterians
rebuilt their church one more time, "with
improvements." This is the building you
see today. Some charred timbers in the basement
are testament to the building’s history.
In 1882 a chapel was added. The institution thrived,
growing to a total of 436 members. In the late
1950's, however, changing times and a dwindling
congregation forced a merger with the Scotch
Presbyterians down the street. For a time sessions
were held jointly, alternating locations. In
1965, the congregation left the valiant old structure
For a brief time its rooms echoed with the noises
of children from the nearby school while being
used as extra classroom space, but for the most
part it stood nearly empty and waiting. In 1972
it was purchased by Judge Whilliam Drohan of
New York City, a summer resident of Salem and
part-time thespian of some note, who saw in the
structure a myriad of unexplored possibilities.
He replaced the altar with a stage, made other
necessary changes, and produced the first shows
at the Fort Salem Theater.
In 1979, the theater was sold to Quentin C. Beaver,
a director and award-winning actor, who had starred
in several productions and come to love Salem
as a second home. Under his aegis, the reputation
of Fort Salem thrived, becoming one of the premier
summer stock theatres of the Northeast, known
for the professional quality of its family-oriented
musicals, comedies and occasional dramas. His
daughter, Kathy Beaver, served as artistic director
for five seasons, through the very successful
thirty-fifth anniversary summer in 2006. In the
fall of 2006, Hebron resident Jay Kerr purchased
Fort Salem Theater from the Beavers.
The chapel, once home to dressing rooms and a scene shop, has become an elegant cabaret, with state-of-the-art lighting and sound. The Mainstage, like the cabaret designed by David Pedimonte, has been totally renovated, with a proscenium arch, new stage, and new appointments, beautifully executed by Jewett Restorations of Saratoga Springs.
While changes have had to be made to intensify
the dramatic experience for theater aficionados,
efforts are always made to preserve the historic
nature of the building. Some of the original
wooden pews remain on premises, but the uncomfortable
seats from the nineteenth century have been replaced
with 199 seats donated from and by Broadway’s
Helen Hayes Theater.
Fort Salem Theater, still known by villagers
as the Brick Church, faces out toward a broad,
tree lined street in Salem's National Historic
District. The theater presides in majesty over
its neighbors, which include many gracious homes
dating from the early 1800's, with its tall steeple
and towering white columns supporting a Greek
Revival portico over white marble steps.
Directors, casts and musicians are drawn from
the world of professional entertainers from Broadway, off-Broadway, Broadway National Tours, and the country's best regional theaters. They are joined by artists relocated to the Albany, Warren and Washington County areas, as well as emerging local talents.