October 2008

In Recovery

Can an arts hot spot survive change?

Recovery Lounge photograph by Pat McAvoy

Every month or so a sandwich board in front of Upper Jay Upholstery advertises “music tonight 8 pm.” That’s all it takes. By nightfall people spill out of the boxy, three-story building—a former Model T–factory—at the corner of Route 9N and Springfield Road. In the crowd there might be a pig farmer, a plumber, a couple of bartenders, carpenters, a ski-jump coach, some third-graders, an an­tiques dealer, a politician—always an eclectic sampling of Adirondackers. While the musicians play the flavor of the night, the audience boogies. Sometimes you’ll even see a well-known Keene novelist bust a move.

Live music in the Adirondacks isn’t hard to come by: just check out the events calendars for the Old Forge, Blue Mountain Lake, North Creek or Lake Placid nonprofit arts centers. But what’s happening in the teensy hamlet of Upper Jay is different. There are few mailings, no box office, no uncomfortable assigned seats, no closing time. The up­holstery shop, called the Recovery Lounge when the industrial sewing machines are pushed to the walls, feels like an underground gathering. Show up and you’ve crashed the cool kids’ party.

Better described as middle-aged, the brothers who own the place are definitely cool. Scott Renderer is a veteran actor who’s worked on Broadway, in movies and on the road with the Wooster Group, an experimental theater collective whose founders include Spalding Gray and Willem Dafoe. Byron Renderer is an accomplished musician and painter. They moved to the Adirondacks in the mid ’90s for the quiet life. Then in 2000 the guys bought the old Ford factory and started dressing furniture.

They credit the building with reigniting their interest in the arts. The first floor is a high-ceilinged space; its guts—beams, ropes, cables—tangle with old prints, mirrors, antlers and couches and chairs they bought to rehab. The room lends itself to creativity, plus the acoustics are fantastic. Which is why the Renderers started inviting friends to the shop whenever their band, Monsterbuck (Scott’s the drummer, By­ron the bassist, pal Chris Kowanko sings, plays guitar and keyboards), wanted an audience. Everyone loved it.

Soon there were kids’ holiday plays, celebrations, more bands. Acts were booked from away, like a flamenco guitarist, a hip-hop group, a folk duo that included Rick Moody (the author of The Ice Storm is now a traveling musician). Scott directed and acted in a production of David Ma­met’s American Buffalo; a theater collaboration with writer Russell Banks packed the house for a week. An “Art Party” ex­hib­ited the work of 38 regional artists (even a couple of Harold Weston paintings), during which a few attendees skinny-dipped out back in the Ausable River, near the ruins of theme-park Land of Makebelieve. Wintertime jam sessions gave ar­ea musicians something to do on frosty weekends. Up­per Jay’s Wells Mem­orial Library Writers’ Collective presented its poems, songs and plays, wrapping up in the wee hours—after the children left—with a racy memoir excerpt.

Scott says that a local highbrow arts advocate told him the lounge “felt a little naughty,” which fits right in with the Renderers’ vision: anything goes.

And as far as the name: “Art helps us all recover from the stress of whatever we do,” says Scott. There’s also a psychologist’s office on the third floor of the building “for all the confused artists that have breakdowns—another form of recovery.”

But Recovery comes at a cost. Passing a hat, the way the entertainment was supported in the lounge’s early days, won’t cut it as the Renderers’ offerings expand. So last year they sought nonprofit status, forming the Upper Jay Art Center, an umbrella for the Recovery Lounge and the music, theater, art exhibits, workshops and other creative events that happen here. Ideally, qualifying for grants and donations means that Scott and Byron won’t lose their shirts: their endeavors had been subsidized by the upholstery business. Of course, it means competing with countless Adirondack nonprofits for those dollars. And it means changes, such as bylaws, building code inspections, insurance, accessibility, a board of directors.

So can one of the funkiest spots in the park hang on to its character while complying with the rules of institutionalization? Can the Renderers retain their vi­sion and spontaneity? Scott ad­mits, “We have to be careful how we proceed to preserve the atmosphere, to keep going, to give people what they want.”

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