Across Upstate New York, historic theaters hold an important place on main streets from Jamestown to Albany, but their operators say they are an endangered species.
Now, they are banding together to encourage the state to support them in a similar way to zoos and aquariums.
“It’s a memory maker for people,” said Lisa Wilsey, executive director of the Stanley Theatre in Utica. "They always remember the show that they went to at the Stanley. Sometimes they don’t have the show but they remember the building."
She says Utica’s Stanley theater is full of small details you’ll never forget, from a banister inspired by the staircase on the Titanic, to one of the largest freestanding chandeliers in the world, and that’s all before the curtain even rises.
“Young or old, when you come to a show here, it’s special," Wilsey said.
She says the theaters aggregate budgets exceed $100 million and their economic impacts for upstate's major downtowns conservatively exceed $350 million. She says historic theaters like the Stanley, and cities like Utica who have preserved them, have a mutually beneficial relationship.
“It’s a tool cities can use to attract new population, retain its population, it’s a place where the aging can also come out and have entertainment,” she said.
But she stresses that they are endangered because there are only 13 like it across Upstate New York, and in the aftermath of the pandemic, have formed a group called “Alive Downtowns."
“With this organization we are trying to encourage the governor to look at upstate historic theater’s along the same lines as an aquarium, public television, zoos,” she said.
That would mean receiving an ongoing $20 million in operating support from the state to remain viable.
“A certain percentage will be broken up evenly to all 13 theaters, and then the remainder would be based on the size and volume of that particular theater,” she said.
The money would be used to keep these historic venues alive, and make sure countless more generations can enjoy what they have to offer.
“I always say our doors are the gateway to your next memory,” she said. “I think knowing that something has survived this long being this beautiful is a testament to the spirit of Utica."