A Job Well Done: Stage Hands Union Celebrates 100th Anniversary
Keeping people entertained has never been an easy task, and the magic that occurs on stage is just one portion of the work involved in creating a successful live production.
Although less glamorous than standing in the spotlight, what occurs behind the scenes is equally significant. The expertise of these backstage and technical theater workers plays a significant role in the execution of entertainment, but their participation is largely unnoticed, and that’s exactly how they want it.
Current and former members of the The Local No. 266 International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees gathered recently for a banquet to celebrate its 100th anniversary. Although the group has been entertaining area residents since 1913, recognition generally only comes in the form of a listing when the credits roll as everyone leaves the theater.
In addition to providing workers with expertise in live theater, motion pictures, television, trade shows, exhibitions, broadcasting and concerts, the union supports the entertainment industry with equipment and construction shops. In particular, the union’s members have made a significant impact on the arts community of Chautauqua County by providing support to The Reg Lenna Center for the Arts over its nearly 100-year history.
According to Lynn Warner, general manager for the Reg Lenna Center for the Arts, the center is contracted with the Local No. 266 International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which provides technical labor for all productions on the theater main stage.
“The union stage hands operate lights, sound, movie projection and coordinate all on-stage set and equipment placement and functionality,” Warner said. “We depend on them to furnish qualified workers to facilitate productions of the highest quality for shows both sponsored by the Reg, as well as for those who rent our beautiful theater.”
A MAJOR ACHIEVEMENT
Even more impressive than providing expertise essential to the presentation of live entertainment at several local historical theaters, such as Chautauqua Institution, the Celoron Open Air Theatre, the Wintergarden, Shea’s, Pic-17, Midway, the Lakewood Drive-In and others, the union stepped in during the 1980s to help transition the Palace Theatre into a civic center. According to John R. Samuelson, who is a current member of the union, the project was one of its major achievements.
“We were asked to volunteer to see if we could save the civic center when they were going to demolish it in 1982,” Samuelson said. “I was asked by Phil Morris to see what we could do, and the guys of the local said they wanted to make it a civic center. Over a six-month period we volunteered labor to totally renovate the stage and much more – with no budget. There was also lot of community effort that went into that theater. But without the union, there would have been no stage, and without a stage there is no theater. I think it’s pretty safe to say it would have been a parking lot today – we’re pretty proud of that as an organization.”
According to Philip Morris, former executive director of the Chautauqua County Association for the Arts, who currently serves as chief executive officer for Proctors Theatre of Schenectady, when the city first let the Arts Council do some programming in the building, the stage hands volunteered to help make it functional, but it wasn’t easy. Yet. the end result, he said, was that everyone was absolutely satisfied with their participation.
“It was proof of a coalition building,” Morris said. “Like everybody else who was involved, the stage hands were prepared to roll up their sleeves and participate in order to make something happen – not just wait for it to happen for them. Happy birthday, guys.”
For more information, or to become a member of the Local No. 266 International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, interested parties may email email@example.com.
The Reg Lenna Center for the Arts has undergone an extensive evolution that spans nearly as long as the stage hands union has existed. The union provided projectionists and other workers throughout the building’s time as a movie theater. And, when the theater was faced with the possibility of indefinitely closing its doors in the late 1980s, union workers were there to offer their support in the struggle to keep the arts alive in Jamestown.
What area residents currently know as The Reg Lenna Center for the Arts began when The Palace Theatre opened in the early 1920s. When 1930 came around, the owner, Nikitas D. Dipson, leased the Palace Theatre to Warner Brothers for a 20-year contract. Warner Brothers operated the theater until 1950, when the Dipson family reacquired it to make major renovations and change the name to Dipson’s Palace Theatre.
The theater operated until the late 1970s, when it started to become a financial burden because it was deteriorating. In a 1978 interview with The Post-Journal, James Walton, who served as a member of the board for the theater, said that although the building was not in danger of demolition, it was “slowly becoming an albatross.”
After three years of evaluating whether to further renovate or demolish, 1981 rolled around, and The Post-Journal reported that a leaky roof poured rain onto the audience during a concert by Harry Chapin. The following year, in 1982, a feasibility study aptly named “The Palace Theatre: To Be Or Not To Be,” determined that it would take more than $693,000 to convert the theater into a center for the arts.
The daunting price tag for renovations was no deterrent for the city of Jamestown, which purchased the building for $11,000, nor the Chautauqua County Arts Council, which leased the building for $30,000 in order to keep it from deteriorating further. Shortly thereafter, major renovations were completed by 15 members of the Local No. 266 International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and more than 200 local volunteers, including a complete overhaul of the stage rigging, the running of rope through pulleys more than 60 feet above the stage, the hanging of a projection screen and curtains.
The building became known as The Palace Civic Center, and a grand reopening celebration featuring the 1924 version of “Peter Pan” and the 1925 version of “Phantom of the Opera” was held on Oct. 29, 1982. Samuelson recalls the feeling of pride when Judy Collins took the stage for a concert on Nov. 13.
“They had played the night before in Carnegie Hall, and the technical director told me that we had a better technical performance than they had in New York City – that was a pretty impressive achievement I thought,” Samuelson said. “No matter what happens you’ve got to make sure the show looks absolutely perfect as far as the audience is concerned. That’s the real joy of working in theater – a job well done.”
Although the theater had been saved from the possibility of meeting its demise in the early 1980s, it wasn’t long before further renovations were required, and a $3.35 million campaign started in 1986 is what set in motion the transition of the Palace to the center for the arts it is today.
The Palace Theatre was renamed The Reg Lenna Civic Center in 1987 to honor the Reginald and Elizabeth Lenna Foundation, which donated $1 million toward the campaign. The renovations began in 1989, and members of the Local No. 266 International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees were there again, and have remained an integral part of the theater’s operation through today.
The Reg Lenna Civic Center celebrated its grand reopening in 1990, and it has continued to provide a place for the arts to flourish since then. But, the theater now faces the beginning of a new age of digital media, and is currently raising funds for a campaign to purchase a new film projector.
As a center for the arts, the theater is still one of the primary locations for entertainment in the area. It annually hosts the Lucille Ball Festival of Comedy, and rents out its space to various community organizations and businesses. Most recently, the theater celebrated a merger between itself and the Arts Council for Chautauqua County with a production of “Smokey Joes Cafe” and a collaborative effort with Southern Tier Brewing Company that brought Dark Star Orchestra to Jamestown.
According to Walton, who currently owns and operates I’ve Been Framed of Jamestown, the center has become much more than the albatross it once was.
“I think it’s delightful what it’s become – it has served a purpose,” Walton said.
For more information, call 484-7070 or visit www.reglenna.com.