Sacandaga Park’s Rustic Theatre

Sacandaga Park Rustic Theatre ’s Early Years
From the Adirondack Inn a pathway highlighted by a sign of a log and branch with the words “Sacandaga Park” led to the Midway. The image of this log entrance became a favorite on postcards and souvenirs. Along the pathway people would pass the Dance Pavilion and arrive at the Rustic Theatre.

The Rustic Theatre was the only one of it’s kind in the area. Built in the late 1800’s in the Adirondack tradition of bark covered logs with the natural scenery of fir trees providing the backdrop. The theatre was also shared among the churches in Northville for Sunday morning services in the summer. School children’s end of the year plays would be performed there before the park opened in July.

A few of the summer performers in those early years were:
John Phillips Sousa: Sousa at the age of six was found to have absolute pitch. When Sousa reached the age of 13, his father, (a trombonist in the U.S. Marine Band) enlisted his son in the Marine Corps as an apprentice. Sousa served his apprenticeship for seven years, until 1875. Several years later, Sousa left his apprenticeship to join a theatrical (pit) orchestra where he learned to conduct.

The Sousa Band toured 1892-1931, performing 15,623 concerts. The most well known music of Souses’ was the “Stars and Stripes Forever” to which Sousa wrote lyrics, but they are not as familiar as the music itself.

Productions of the theatre also featured the J. W. Gorman’s Alabama Troubadours who toured the east coast during the late 1800’s.

Before the Civil War mixed casts of white and African American performers were forbidden by law in many parts of the U.S., but were secretly included in some white companies. After the Civil War, mixed and all-African American minstrel companies toured America and England. Most troupes were all male, using female impersonators in the skits. Both featured stereotyped caricatures rather than genuine depictions of African Americans, and were usually demeaning

By the 1850s, however, that element had been reduced and evolved into a three-part show. In the first part of the show the music became less crude with popular and sentimental ballads of the day and polished minstrel songs.

The second part consisted of a miscellaneous collection of dancing and musical virtuosity, with parodies of stage plays. The last part of the show was the “walk-around.” This was an ensemble finale in which members of the troupe in various combinations participated in song, instrumental, and choral music and dance.

In the Alabama Troubadours company there were no black face players. The cast consisted of all African American performers: singers, dancers, comedians, actors and musicians.

The Troubadours advertising proclaimed: “Presenting realistic entertainment, unique, picturesque and instructive; representing a true and graphic manner the merry moments passed on the old Southern plantations down South before the War.”

Weekly vaudeville acts were a popular draw. The Ziegfeld Follies were a series of elaborate theatrical productions on Broadway in New York City from 1907 through 1931. Although all the follies didn’t visit the theatre, two famous members made the trip to the Rustic Theatre from NYC:

One being Eddie Cantor who was a troupe member of the Ziegfeld Follies until 1927 in a long-running revue. For several years Cantor co-starred in an act with pioneer African-American comedian Bert Williams, with Cantor appearing in blackface. Cantor played William’s fresh-talking son. Other co-stars with Cantor during his time in the Follies included Will Rogers, Marilyn Miller, and W. C. Fields .

The second was WC Fields, juggler turned comedian and actor, who coined many one liner phrases a couple being: “I cook with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food” and “Who stole the cork out of my lunch?”

Al Jolson was also booked at the theatre. Being the first popular singer to make a spectacular “event” out of singing a song. He enjoyed performing in blackface makeup – a theatrical convention in the early 1900s. With his unique and dynamic style of singing black music, like jazz and blues, he was later credited with single-handedly introducing African American music to white audiences.

Groucho Marx comedian and film star of the day. He is famed as a master of wit. With his distinctive image, which included a heavy greasepaint on his face, bushy moustache, eyebrows, and glasses. Just a couple of Marx one-liners were “I never forget a face, but in your case I’ll be glad to make an exception” and “Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas and how he got in my pajamas I’ll never know.”

Entertainers could stay at the Adirondack Inn or if they liked a more scenic, private, accommodations they could stay at the High Rock Lodge located on a hill just outside the park. This lodge was built in 1901. It was named after a huge boulder that was left in place at the time of it’s construction. With it’s beautiful grounds, stables, and panoramic view of the valley it was second in size and luxury only to the Inn.

The F.J.&G. railroad utilized United Booking from New York City to keep the entertainment coming. If there was something going on, the Rustic theater could provide the seating for a thousand people and an open-air stage. It was the only one of it’s kind in the region.

Sacandaga Park Rustic Theatre in the 1900’s

The localities thirst for theatre only was quenched during the summer months. The F.J.&G. railroad tried to provide a way for people in Northville and surrounding areas to attend theatre during the winter months by occasionally running a train to Gloversville. But snow and ice prevented a lot of people from going too far from home.

In the 1920’s George Washburn owned the Northville Knitting Mill at the corner of Division and Second streets. The mill, a three story brick structure, had been closed down at that time due to lack of business.

Washburn partitioned off a part of the mill to create what was called the Gem Theatre. The Gem Theatre’s seating consisted of wooden benches at floor level and in the balcony. Music accompanied these silent movies by a pianist.

The Rustic Theatre did exist a little longer in the Sacandaga Park than the Midway and some of the hotels. When the valley was flooded in 1930, the location of the theatre was spared from the water as the encroaching shoreline did not swallow it up. In these later years the theatre was also enclosed.
But all of that came to a sad end in the afternoon of July 1955. After the matinee performance of Guys and Dolls everyone had just left the theatre when a fire broke out. All that could be done was try to keep the fire from spreading. The building was a total loss. No one was injured.

A new summer theater was built in a different location in Sacandaga Park in June of 1956. Named the Sacandaga Summer Theater, the large structure was made of metal and had seating for over 1000
people. Some of the performers in this era were:

Tallulah Bankhead was a star of stage and screen. In 1923 she made her debut on the London stage, where she appeared in over a dozen plays in the next eight years.

Victor Jory (who may be remembered for his role as Jonas Wilkerson the brutal and opportunistic overseer in the movie Gone with the Wind) toured with theater troupes and appeared on Broadway, before making his Hollywood debut in 1930. He initially played romantic leads, but later was mostly cast as the villain.

Delores Del Rio a stunning Mexican beauty married to one of MGMs leading art directors and production designers. When talkies became popular she was usually played exotic and unimportant roles, but scored successes with Bird of Paradise (1932) and Flying down to Rio the film that launched the careers of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Gertrude Berg, was an American pioneer of classic radio , one of the first (if not the first) woman to create, write, produce and star in a long-running hit when she premiered the serial comedy-drama The Rise of the Goldberg’s (1929), later known as The Goldberg’s.

Imogene Coca got her first job in the chorus of the Broadway musical When You Smile. Coca also became a headliner in Manhattan nightclubs. She gained prominence combining music with comedy. In the early days of live television, Coca played opposite Sid Caesar in the sketch comedy program, Your Show of Shows which was immensely popular from 1950 to 1954. She also had her own series; The Imogene Coca Show.

Helen Forrest was one of the most popular female jazz vocalists during America’s Big Band era. She first sang with her brother’s band at the age of 10, and later began her career singing on CBS radio under the name Bonnie Blue.

Charlton Heston : Heston and his wife Lydia managed a playhouse in Asheville NC in 1947. In 1948, they went back to New York where Heston was offered a supporting role in a Broadway revival of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra The film producer of Casablanca spotted Heston in a 1950 television production of Wuthering Heights and offered him a contract. When his wife reminded Heston they had decided to pursue theater and television, he replied, “Well, maybe just for one film to see what it’s like.”

Lisa Ferraday starred opposite Heston in the play Detective Story at the Sacandaga Summer Theater in 1956.

Van Heflin best remembered for his role in Shane, also performed on stage throughout his acting career. One of his stage credits include The Philadelphia Story on Broadway opposite Katherine Hepburn and Joseph Cotton.

Walter Matthau :During World War II Matthau served in the U.S. Army air forces as a radioman-gunner, in the same bomb group as Jimmy Stewart. He reached the rank of Staff Sergeant and became interested in acting. Matthau often joked that his best early review came in a play where he posed as a derelict. One reviewer said, “The others just looked like actors in make-up, Walter Matthau really looks like a skid row bum!”. Matthau was a respected stage actor for years.

Financial difficulties in 1962 brought productions to an end. And the Sacandaga Summer Theater stood vacant until it was auctioned in 1970 then later demolished.

by Lorraine Decker