A recent lecture I delivered on Prohibition in the North Country allowed me a closeup look at what community activists can accomplish. Among the historic buildings in many towns of northern New York are theaters that were once the center of social life. Many of these old structures have been refurbished as part of city or village revitalization programs. Reclaiming and reviving them is costly, requiring the efforts of dedicated, thoughtful, and energetic folks, mostly volunteers. Just as important is the work that follows—utilizing the facilities as self-sustaining ventures while bringing a community together.
An ongoing example of this is the Chateaugay Town Hall Theater, which is where I delivered the lecture. The building is located near the center of the small border village of Chateaugay in northeastern Franklin County, just south of the Canadian line (and a bootlegging hotspot during Prohibition). In 2011, Plattsburgh’s Press-Republican noted that the theater had “sat dormant for the better part of 35 years.” That was certainly true, with a few stops and starts along the way.
Originally built in 1911, the Town Hall was one of the most impressive public facilities of its kind in the region. Among its many interior features was a beautiful opera house to showcase vaudeville acts, concert performers, plays, local school activities, and silent movies (followed later by talkies).
In 1941 the building was devastated by fire, but the community rebuilt it within a year. As the result of a naming contest conducted by the local newspaper, the opera-house section, reduced somewhat in size but still impressive, became known as “The Gay Theater,” or simply “The Gay.”
Movies and other entertainments were featured there through the 1950s. But for the ensuing 35 years, it was used only intermittently for movies and community events.
In the mid-1990s, an arts group in the Chateaugay Lakes area was looking for a larger and more suitable facility for their summer concerts, spurring renewed interest in the old theater. People came together and by early 1998, a restoration plan was underway. Volunteers and civic groups, supported by grants, donations, and fundraisers, led the effort. Cleaning, modernizations, and improvements were undertaken, culminating in the new Chateaugay Town Hall Theater.
The next major step began in 2007, led by the local Rotary, the town government, and the Chateaugay Revitalization Committee. New systems of lighting, projection, and sound were among the large-scale enhancements that were added. Since the unveiling in 2011, the theater has once again come alive, much like it was a century ago. Movies are regularly featured (classics, modern, and family films) for low admission prices. They also host concerts by local, national, and international performers from all genres, plus comedians. There is seating for an audience of about 400.
The folks at Chateaugay could not be nicer to work with, including the theater’s manager, professional singer/songwriter Josée Allard. If you’re traveling up north, stop in and check out the theater, and stay for a performance if you can. You won’t be disappointed.
A nice touch is that they also host lectures, allowing authors and others to share historical research in a building that is itself historic. For me, that’s about as good as it gets.