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Fort Salem Theater

From Captain Kangaroo to Cabaret

New owner refurbishes Fort Salem Theater

(Article reprinted from Spice by Darrell R. Beebe)

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 tell.

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 said.

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 Miller.

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 Hugh Brannum.

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 Southeast Asia.

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.

“Absolutely not.”

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 work.

“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 to do.”

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 already.

“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.”

Fort Salem Theater
© 2007