New owner refurbishes Fort Salem Theater
(Article reprinted from Spice by Darrell
Jay Kerr moved around the nooks and crannies
of the Fort Salem Theater with the eagerness
of a youngster at his classroom’s show
And certainly it is an eagerness that is
well deserved. As the new owner of the Washington
County-based theatre, which has been entertaining
area audiences for over 30 summers, Kerr
has a treasure trove of theatrical history
to sort through and show off.
As he led a tour of the labyrinthine theater,
which is housed in a former church on Salem’s
East Broadway, he was quick to point out
nooks and crannies filled with piles of old
set pieces, an attic full of costumes and
clothing, rows of flats with the paint of
bygone productions still on it … in
short, a whole toybox of tools to help carry
on the tradition begun so long ago.
“There’s much to explore,” he
Kerr, a theater composer and instructor
of voice and songwriting currently working
out of his Manhattan studio, is in the process
of making Hebron he and his wife’s
fulltime home, or as he puts it, “… seeking
to expand his sphere of creative influence
into upstate New York.”
No stranger to the theater world, he performed
in college with the Princeton Triangle Club,
one of the oldest touring college musical
groups in the country. The Princeton Triangle
Club had such famous alumni as Jimmy Stewart,
Jose Ferrer, Brooke Shields and Wentworth
After college, he began his career holding
cue cards for the beloved children’s
program, Captain Kangaroo, where he fostered
a friendship with “Mr. Green Jeans” actor
He worked on the show “until the army
decided that was a waste of my talent,” Kerr
said. He was drafted into the army during
the Vietnam conflict, but, thanks to Mr.
Green Jeans’ sage advice – “If
they ask you if you know how to type, say
yes” – Kerr ended up “volunteering” with
the entertainment unit. He became a liaison
to USO shows, as well as produced his own
shows in the First Calvary, touring all throughout
A long and varied career has followed. He
has shared the bill with Bette Midler at
New York’s Continental Baths, wrote
children’s musicals, taught in a military
school, parochial schools, acting schools
and universities and even served as the principal
of a junior high school. Now he concentrates
on his work as a vocal instructor, and also
consults with producers and educators, as
well as composes and performs in new projects.
When asked if he had originally planned
on pursuing theater in upstate New York,
Kerr’s answer was quick and definitive.
Upon moving to the area, he and wife Lynn
had instead planned to buy a convenience
store in Vermont. They even had a particular
store in mind, a price resolved and even
had a woman who was going to run it for them.
But the deal fell through. Several times,
in fact, and the Kerrs had to seek something
else to do.
A friend of his in Hebron, who happened
to be in the real estate business, offered
to show him properties.
The friend said, “I’ve got this
building, I don’t know what you would
do with it. It’s the Fort Salem Theater,” Kerr
recalled, and his response was, “well,
how about I run it as a theater?”
Many theater professionals play the “if
I had a theater” game, he said, and
now was his chance to put those ideas to
“I had to wonder, is it the universe
talking to me?” he said.
Kerr said he saw the possibilities in Fort
Salem Theater from the moment he stepped
foot inside, although he admitted that the
space does need some work.
“I love the building,” he said. “Clearly,
the building needs some work, which we plan
He bought the building from Quentin Beaver
and his daughter, Kathy Beaver, who had been
running the theater for the last several
seasons. Both will remain on Kerr’s
staff as consultants, he said.
Since the date of purchase Kerr, with some
help from friends and students, has been
slowly weeding out various costumes, props
and set pieces as he attempts to put the
theater into his version of order. Those
items which can be sold have gone to auction.
He plans to relocate the costume and scene
shop to the barn on his property in Hebron,
which will free up space around the theater
to do other things. For instance, a space
that has served as a dressing room for actors
will be turned into an intimate cabaret space
where musical revues with three or four performers
can be staged, Kerr said.
On the stage sits several rows of seats
donated by, and formerly used by, the Helen
Hayes Theater on New York City’s Broadway.
“These seats have literally seen the
premiere of Eugene O’Neill’s
first full length play,” Kerr said. “Through
the years, classics such as The Subject Was
Roses, Torch Song Trilogy, and Golda’s
Balcony have held theater-goers rapt in their
seats. Now their seats are ours!”
While renovations to the theater will be
extensive and take some time to complete,
Kerr emphasized that he does plan to have
a season this summer, in the form of cabarets.
“Let’s say Tony Bennet was available,
and I knew him, and he worked for nothing … “ Kerr
jokingly explained his plans for the cabarets.
“I describe it as, “Caffé Lena
meets Broadway,” he added.
While he said he would love to have a summer
season of plays in 2007, he said realistically
his plans for the space would not be finished
until later in the year. Instead, he is looking
to have the main stage open by Christmas,
when he plans to christen the space with
a holiday production.
Kerr said he was excited by the challenges
ahead of him and was amazed at the amount
of support he has received from the community
“So many people from the community
popped their heads in and are offering to
help,” he said.
He knows there is a big job ahead of him,
but as he sat on the stage sharing stories
and his vision for the new Fort Salem Theater,
Kerr seemed undaunted. Well, maybe not completely.
“I see what it can be,” he said. “Then
I didn’t sleep.”