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December 2012

Community Theater

It takes a village to save a landmark

If someone were writing a Hollywood screenplay about the Indian Lake Theater, it would be a feel-good story of small-town pluck, of pulling together to triumph in the face of adversity. In the end, the theater would stay open and everyone would be happy. It wouldn’t be that far from the truth—except that in real life, even a Hollywood ending isn’t really the end.

But let’s start at the beginning.

Indian Lake, with a population of 1,400, is the biggest town in Hamilton County, the most sparsely populated county in the Eastern United States. Like elsewhere in the Adirondacks, part of its charm is that it is devoid of the dull uniformity of the big-box, chain-restaurant, multiplex world we increasingly live in.

That’s also its biggest challenge. Without the economy of scale that is the hallmark of business today, it’s difficult to have an economy at all.

Every year, it seems, some new study predicts Ham­ilton County’s imminent demise. And the signs are troubling, not least to the people who live there and want to see it thrive.

Ben Strader, of Blue Mountain Lake, one of Indian Lake’s three hamlets (the others are Indian Lake and Sabael), fears for the future of his town. “Some­times I think if we hang on for 10 years people will realize how great it is to live here,” he says. “But we don’t have a grocery store, the fire department [is struggling]…. My son’s kindergarten has six kids.”

So in 2006, when the owner of the local movie house could no longer keep the business open, Strader and many of his neighbors were upset. “We were worried about another light going out in our community,” he says.

In 2008, with the building still empty and no buyers in sight, a group of concerned locals met and formed a plan: they would raise the money to buy the theater, which had been in business since 1938, and operate it as a not-for-profit. They drafted an appeal letter, and within eight weeks had 500 donations totaling $160,000—exactly what was needed to purchase the building. Then the project re­ceived a Smart Growth grant from the Department of Environmental Conservation. With these cash infusions, the plan could move forward.

Strader, who is managing director of the Blue Mountain Center, an artists’ retreat and conference facility, became president of the Indian Lake Theater board of directors. The 11-member board also in­cludes Adirondack Life’s creative director, Elizabeth Folwell, who lives in Blue Mountain Lake.

Staying open year-round, though chal­lenging financially, is a priority for the board. The members want people in the community to know the theater’s not just for tourists. “Someone said they want it to be a living room for the town,” Strader says. “We need more opportunities to come together.”

Another priority is keeping ticket prices low enough for most people to afford—$5 for movies, half of what you’d pay elsewhere—though it means more aggressive fund-raising and grant-writing is necessary to stay afloat.

With one full-time director and five part-time employees, the theater is not exactly an engine of economic growth. But its effect on the town’s sense of optimism is immeasurable.

Danielle Shaw, the theater’s 27-year-old director, hired in June, grew up in Ches­tertown. She attended Boston University; later she worked for a homeless shelter in Seattle, then as a Peace Corps volunteer in the African nation of Burkina Faso. She re­turned to her hometown in 2010, thinking it was a temporary layover, but political turmoil overseas changed her plans. Strader says Shaw’s experience of listening to and working with all members of a community to accomplish a goal made her stand out among the job applicants.

That means, for instance, lining up some of the most eclectic programming imaginable—the goal is to have something for everyone. One week in August included a talk by Scott Wallace, author of a book about uncontacted tribes in the Amazon; bluegrass band Jim Gaudet and the Railroad Boys; a meet-the-filmmaker screening of the documentary As Goes Janesville; a blockbuster movie, The Dark Knight Rises; Woody Allen’s latest film, To Rome with Love; and a performance of the musical The Fantasticks sponsored by the Adirondack Lakes Center for the Arts.

Art House Thursdays feature documentaries and independent or foreign films. Screenings of op­era and ballet from the premier companies of Eu­rope are subsidized by state and private grants. These $12 showings have a small but loyal audience, Shaw says.

In summer the theater is open six nights a week. After Labor Day the sched­­ule is cut back to Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The Cabin Fever Players use the space for a community theater production each spring. Their performances pack the 243-seat house.

This year the venue’s supporters came through again to raise $12,000 for a retractable screen. But now the theater is facing a new threat: starting in November 2013, the major motion picture studios will be converting from film to digital, and any theater that doesn’t have a digital projector will be unable to show their latest movies.

The transition to digital is “the biggest challenge to date,” Strader says. “Hollywood is not in­terested in supporting small theaters. Politicians have been supportive, but times are tight.”

The theater was given an estimate of $60,000 for the conversion. If a state grant doesn’t come through, the community will once again have to rally to raise the cash. “I’m very confident we’re going to make it,” Strader says, “but how we’re going to do it I don’t know.”

Whatever happens, the death of film means the theater’s 17-year-old projectionist, Vinnie Smith, will someday be one of the few people left who know how to run a 35-millimeter film projector, Strader observes. “I can imagine him 50 years from now telling people all about it.”

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