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Fort Salem is revived under Jay Kerr & co.

Article from The Chronicle - December 20, 2007 - January 9, 2008
By Cathy DeDe
Chronicle Arts Editor
 

In my line of work, I meet a lot of people who talk about what they are going to do – and sometimes it works that way, but a plenty of times it doesn’t.

A year ago, when Jay Kerr and his wife Lynne purchased the struggling Fort Salem Theater from Quentin Beaver, he had grand ideas for the building. A New York City impresario and jack-of-all-theatrical- trades, Mr. Kerr called himself a collector of antiques, and this slightly crumbling theater the largest of those. His promise was to renovate, renovate, renovate, and to use his New York City connections to bring a new level of theater to Salem.

This, he has done, in spades – and last Friday’s grand re-opening of the main stage was nothing short of a little miracle, especially for those of us who knew it “when,” as the saying goes.

My understanding is that Mr. Kerr’s hearty crew of helpers – paid and volunteer, together -- were working right up to the moment the doors actually opened, addressing some last-minute trouble with a furnace and screwing in the elegant new real theater seats purloined from the old Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway (in New York City) that replaced the former seating – which was mostly pews left over from the building’s former life as a church.

Like the smaller theater space built into a former cluttered storage room that Mr. Kerr opened in June for his first cabaret-centric summer season, the new Fort Salem main stage boasts rich burgundy walls with elegant gold trim. Where the cabaret room is something of an intimate bauble, the main stage, with its bright white high tin ceiling and wide open seating space facing a broad expanse of rich gold velvet curtain, seems infinitely large – and entirely unrecognizable from its former look, which I can now barely recall.

But the feeling I got as Mr. Kerr gave a brief pre-show curtain talk on Friday night was not that of a community simply here to celebrate or support a newly renovated theater. They were here to see a show. Frankly, in recent years, the turnout wasn’t so great, I don’t think, for Fort Salem, and the theater had fallen out of the warp and weft of regular Salem life.

Mr. Kerr’s winning demeanor seems to me equal parts gentle and eager, with a large dose of ready humor evidenced by a wide smile. He has clearly won himself an active part in the surprisingly thriving arts scene of little Salem. His cast of 30ish for the grand opening show – a new, original musical based on Charles Dickens’seasonal classic A Christmas Carol, co-written by himself – easily blended professional actors from New York and the greater Capital Region with amateurs from town. Never mind the theater is renovated – more to the point: It’s alive again (not unlike the resuscitated Mr. Scrooge, I’ll just note in passing). People have a reason to go there. This viewer predicts that they will.

 
 

Fort Salem’s new ‘Christmas Carol’ has heart

Article from The Chronicle - December 20, 2007 - January 9, 2008
by Cathy DeDe

 

Ultimately, it’s not for a pretty new theater that anyone from outside town is going to travel the windy roads of Washington County to get to the Fort Salem Theater – it’s not for a pretty new space that anyone in town is going to plunk down their money to see a show, either, for that matter.

Fort Salem Theater’s new owner Jay Kerr opened the newly renovated main stage on Friday, Dec. 14, with a new, original musical inspired by the seasonal classic, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The show continues on Broadway in Salem through this weekend. The short answer is, yes, it’s worth the drive.

This Christmas Carol, directed by former Dorset Theatre Festival artistic director Bill Aupperlee, is a tight, 75-minute musical that emphasizes the humor of the piece but finally has a lot of heart. I’m a sucker for this stuff, this time of year especially, and found myself rather moved by the end.

The set-up in this case is a modern family of meager means, whose mother tells the Dickens story to remind them of what is good about the season. One family is transported into another, and the story unfolds.

Here is the formidable professional actor and Washington County transplant Gordon Hazzard as a portly Scrooge who relishes his miserly ways – even does a bit of a soft-shoe, most winningly, to celebrate his bad old self. Mr. Hazzard’s light-hearted bad spirit is all the more easily turned to good, as this production has it.

Topical jokes are volleyed sparingly but with abandon: The modern-day Crachit children spar over sharing X-boxes and iPods they don’t even own yet. There are jokes about health care – even, blasphemously,
in the lyrics to a song about Tiny Tim – and The Ghost of Christmas Futureis a particular wise-cracker, once he gets talking.

Here, also, is a large cast of blended amateurs and professionals whose every member contributes admirably.

Mr. Aupperlee knows what he’s doing when he puts his ensemble of Cratchit family singers front stage, center, for the opening number – then follows with a beautifully choreographed children’s chorus that again blows the roof off the room.

Even a two-year old on stage, who is mostly held but has an occasional little bit of business, has serious stage presence and even some instinct for the spotlight. She’s the youngest member of the talented real-life Gee LaMothe family, relatively recent artist transplants to Hebron whose members make up most of the Cratchit family.

Young Brendan Dailey as Tiny Tim has chops to spare, as does an uncredited young female singer in the children’s chorus. Those kids can sing!

Guest Kerri Pedemonti as Belle sings beautifully alongside homegrown actors such as local doctor Dan Garfinkel, who’ve learned their craft in the corps of Peter Carrolan’s Footlighters community theater in Salem. Seasoned amateurs like Hubbard Hall’s Ted DeBonis or Salem Central drama teacher Mary Skelly add equally to the production.

Simple lighting effects and a few furniture pieces create the setting against which the actors tell their story. I especially like that it’s so consistent, cut from whole cloth, especially given the range of experience of company members. To that, credit must be due especially to the director.

I’d also note that Mr. Kerr and his collaborator -- Jeremy Blachman of California, who worked together mostly by phone – have created a winning book and score. Yes, I was even humming a tune on the long drive home.

Much of the back-breaking work has been done, creating this show. My hope is that it becomes an annual event – it’s certainly a version of the Dickens I’d be eager to see back again next year.

Same goes for the back-breaking work of re-opening Fort Salem. I suppose in that case it just keeps being hard work to run a theater – but already, much has been accomplished. As with Scrooge’s prospects at the end of the play, the future for Fort Salem looks bright.

 
 

Fort Salem Theater: New Owners, New Season

Article from Main Street - July 11-25, 2007
by Sharon Tefft Bozovsky
 
The Old Greek Revival Church that has served for so many years as the home of the Fort Salem Theater will go dark this summer as renovations by new owners Jay and Lynne Kerr are underway.  But that doesn’t mean nothing is going on.  Even though the main stage is still under construction, the Kerrs plan a busy summer of one-man shows, cabarets, and experimental small plays.

Last November, the Kerrs, who relocated from their show-biz lives in the Big Apple, were scouting the area for an “anchor”  --something that would allow them to settle in their part-time home in Hebron instead of being part-time commuter residents.  A real estate agent, showing them the property in the area, offered them an old church cum theater.  Not knowing what the Kerrs did in New York, the agent said,  “I don’t know what you’d do with it.”  “Why produce theater!” Jay exclaimed.

The theater, previously owned by Quetin and Kathy Beaver, was offered either with or without all the props, costumes, sets, and so forth, and the Kerrs opted for the complete package.

Before those doors open, though and before the curtain goes up, there are going to be changes.  “For one thing, we have heat now,” Jay said.  And he is also pretty proud of the new seats, which will replace the old church pews and academy seating.  “They’re sitting on the stage right now,” he explained, referring to the hundred-plus seats he bought form the renowned Helen Hayes Theater.  Jay also described renovations on the other parts of the building that will provide space for classes in all aspects of stage production, acting, voice, direction, and more.

Busy as they are, the new owners are full of enthusiasm and great ideas for their upcoming tenure in the Old Greek Revival Church.

“I can’t wait to do a lot things,” Jay said.  “But we’ve been working with blinders on—just focusing on getting the cabaret ready.  We’re thinking classic, intimate musicals.  One reason the former owners had a hard time coming up with the money for upkeep is because they loved these bright, huge productions, which are costly.  We want to entertain people and be highly professional.  We’d love to do union shows, and to do that you can’t do bigger shows,” he emphasized.

This summer’s performances will take place in the recently renovated costume area that has been converted into a cabaret stage—or as Jay describes it, a “completely gorgeous” intimate space for entertainment.The main stage, still in need of quite a bit of work, won’t be ready for productions until December, when the Kerrs plan to stage a debut production of a new musical based on Charles Dickens’s classic A Christmas Carol.
 
 
 

Fort Salem's big launch, July 6

Article from The Chronicle - July 12-18, 2007
by Cathy DeDe
Chronicle Arts Editor
 
Jay Kerr, new owner (with his wife, Lynne) of Fort Salem Theatre in Salem, launched his opening season with the first in a series of cabarets planned for this summer before a full house of invited guests on Friday evening, July 6.

Mr. Kerr took the stage first, solo on a stool, to tell the story, quite engagingly, of how just about everyone in the room had contributed to the rejuvenation of the former backstage storage/dressing room space into a fully functional intimate theater done up in deep red with rich gold trim.

Broadway star Neva Small – self-described as “Not Quiet an Ingenue”  --  was quite charming as she sang her way through an evening of songs that told her story of hits (she was the third daughter in the movie version of Fiddler on the Roof), and misses (taking the lead in a musical based on Member of the Wedding that closed in six days, rather that a role in Godspell, which had considerably more staying power).

Next up:  Kerri Lynn Jennings, July 13-15.  Details:  854-9200  -- C. DeDe
 
 
 

Jay Kerr of Hebron & NYC Takes a Plunge

Article from The Chronicle - Dec. 14, 2006
by Cathy DeDe
Chronicle Arts Editor

Fort Salem Theater
Showbiz jack-of-all-trades, Jay Kerr, age 60, has purchased the Fort Salem Theater -- the building, its contents and the business, kit and caboodle -- from longtime owner and theater producer Quentin Beaver.

Mr. Beaver started Fort Salem Theater in the converted Greek revival church on Broadway in downtown Salem some 35 years ago. His daughter, Kathy Beaver, took over the operations five years ago.

"It's the stupidest thing anyone could do," an effusive Mr. Kerr says, laughing. "All my friends agree -- and they're very jealous."

Mr. Kerr and his wife, Lynne, divide their time between their home in Manhattan, where Mr. Kerr is a vocal instructor, musical theater writer, freelance music director and producer, among other gigs, and the farm house in Hebron that they purchased in 2001.

He tells The Chronicle, "We were going to buy a store in Vermont for our retirement program, but that fell through. My realtor lives in Hebron, where we live, and after that, he showed me every business for sale in Washington County. He said, "There's this one building in Salem, but I don't know what you'd do with it." I said, "I'll run a theater!'"

Mr. Beaver was asking $125,000 for the business, $85,000 empty, Mr. Kerr says. He said he purchased it for "pretty much" the asking price, noting also that he was told Mr. Beaver had received at least one full-price offer at the $85,000, but held out to find a buyer for the whole theater and business.

Mr. Kerr said he and his wife were looking for a way to move to Hebron permanently, particularly after Mrs. Kerr was struck with a sudden illness last year, from which she is still recovering.

"You learn, "Mr. Kerr says, "you have to do what you want in life, and not wait, because the right time might not ever happen."

"It's a big gamble," Mr. Kerr says. "Theaters don't make money! Stores: they make money. But it's a gorgeous building. We collect antiques, and now we have a very big one."

Mr. Kerr said he'd never had any experience with Fort Salem -- except to attend performances there on occasion.

He said, "I've been telling people, it's going to be just the same, only different." Both Quentin and Kathy Beaver have offered their guidance and advice.

For now, Mr. Kerr is working on clearing and renovating the building. "There aren't 35 years of sets in there, but there are probably 10 years of sets, and a lot of things we won't likely need." Mr. Kerr plans to replace the theater's recycled old classroom/auditorium seats and church pews and put in new, recycled seats he's just received that were recently removed from the storied Helen Hayes Theater on 42nd Street New York (notable shows there include Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy in 1982). The seats are stacked on the stage now: he expects to have a house of 199 seats, which corresponds to an Equity stage actors' union tier for salaries and benefits.

"Certainly, we'll do musicals," he says. "We'll also do some straight plays, and expand on the teaching [the Beavers] did. Also, we'll look to import some programs -- concerts, dance concerts, plays produced in the city or plays that are looking to work out before opening in the city. I have a lot of friends who are just dying to come up here and help us out."

Mr. Kerr also aims to run the theater year-round. But first on the agenda is renovating the place -- and adding a working heating system.

The coming Summer 2007 season will start small: no full-scale musicals, but rather a series of cabarets and musical revues, hopefully featuring guest artists from New York, among others, in the smaller brick outbuilding attached to the main theater. He's planning an opening event in June to introduce the season.

"We've been very fortunate. People are so eager to help us," he says. "We've had all sorts of people from the community and friends from New York helping us clear it out.

Mr. Kerr says he got his start "holding cue cards for Captain Kangaroo" in the early 1960s. He served in the Army, first at Fort McClellan and then in Vietnam. He produced shows and original revues both at Fort McClellan and in Vietnam, where his musical revues toured the country, entertaining the troops. ("It's a beautiful country," he says. "I'm glad I got a chance to do that, although, we actually were shot at, as well. I was lucky.")

Now, he says, "I teach people to sing for Broadway. I write some...[Recent works he co-wrote include Pyrates, based on the true historical story of two women pirates, and War Bonds, about women pilots in World War II]...I produce CDs. Basically, I work in show-business and musical theater."

Current projects include a CD by Neva Small, the actress who is likely best known for her role as Chava in the movie version of Fiddler on the Roof. "Her new cabaret show is called Not Quite an Ingenue," he laughs.

Mr. Kerr plans to maintain such connections, and indicates that many of his colleagues in New York are eager to participate in this new venture. "We are enthusiastically looking forward to doing this," he says.

 
 

Stephen Trombley: ‘In and Out’ in Salem

Article from The Chronicle - Nov. 8-14, 2007
by Jason Irwin

Stephen Trombley is famously unpredictable. On Saturday evening, Oct. 27, some 50-plus people sat down in the dimly lit Fort Salem Theater’s cabaret room, located in Salem’s NationalHistoric District, for an evening of just what they expected...the unexpected.

I was one of them. Fort Salem was featuring a new cabaret show, a performance by the man they billed as “Salem’s Emmy Award-winning Renaissance Man.” What a fitting nicknamethat is....

Mr. Trombley background as an investigative journalist, filmmaker, author and musician certainly is impressive. You might have seen his blues rock band, Psychoneedles, performingaround the area recently (see below for their Glens Falls gig this weekend). And the Emmy isreal, awarded in 1997 for his post-World War II film, Nuremberg.

Mr. Trombley has several films and books to his credit, and has lived at various times inplaces ranging from Ballston Spa to Paris and London. It would be safe to expect that his one-hour monologue with songs would produce a fair amount of uncertainly.

The show was called “In and Out”, a reference to his own experience and observations ofrepetitive behavior. Topics ranged from the death penalty, quitting smoking, people withbeepers, being in a band, having no barber shop in Salem – and don’t forget “Uncle Paul.”

He opened the dialogue by describing how his initial excitement (when the was asked todo the performance) waned shortly after the moment had passed. “It kicked in,” he reminiscedjokingly, “that this was going to be like work.”

Throughout the performance, Mr. Trombley made several humorous “inside” referencesabout Salem. I got the impression that most of the attendees were local residents andacquaintances of the star of the night (but I still got the jokes).

Accompanied on piano by the theater’s artistic director, Jay Kerr, Stephen led theaudience down a windy road of social and political satire, delivered in baritone monologue, sewntogether by the occasional acoustic guitar number.

At one point, he stopped the show cold and proclaimed a state of emergency: “Ladies andgentlemen, we have a tuning situation. We are going to be moving into some territory where it isactually going to matter if the guitar is in tune. Some serious stuff.”

I especially enjoyed his own “start/stop” version of the R&B standard “(Get Your Kickson) Route 66”, Nat King Cole’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and, the highlight of the evening,an original song entitled “Because It’s Time” written (over seven years, he laughed) for his wife, Susi.

The Fort Salem Theater was the perfect backdrop for a small performance, an intimatesetting with great acoustics, and a potential for a wide range of events. There’s a much larger main stage in the building with even more capacity and possibilities. Some interesting events areposted on the theater’s web site, including A Christmas Cabaret , coming later this month, apreview of the main stage’s December presentation of A Christmas Carol. The staff was very friendly and hospitable....I enjoyed the piece of complementary Chocolate Silk Layer Cake,very, very much. Thanks!

I asked Mr. Trombley how he came to live in Salem, given his extensive travelbackground, and what he enjoys most about it (besides being the president of the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce). I kind of expected a half-serious, half-not answer.

”I reached a point where I wanted to focus on being in one place,” he said. “Salem is justa magical community. I love the way it looks, the whole sense of community here. And, for atiny place, we’ve got a lot going on. With Jay Kerr’s new Fort Salem Theater, and this being the birthplace of Psychoneedles, I think it’s safe to say that Salem is now the entertainment capital ofthe world”.

Visit the Fort Salem Theater at www.fortsalemtheater.com

The Chronicle
(Glens Falls, NY), Nov 8-14, 2007.

   
 
   
 
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