Playing the Big Time in Saranac Lake

Before radio, television, and even talking pictures, Vaudeville was king. Being a musical theatre historian, I know way too much about this, and could go on and on. So I’ll try to keep it relatively brief. And I promise there’s a local connection.

Think of the entire audience for television, radio, and film, all seeking entertainment. Vaudeville. It was a lot like those TV variety shows from the 1970s. You might have a juggler or a dog act opening the bill, move on to a legit singer, maybe a big star in a short one-act play, a comedian or two, a pianist, a dance ensemble, a big-time headliner, and maybe a dog act to cover the walkout. The last slot was considered the worst … “Playing to the haircuts.” Every town had a vaudeville theatre, and most often, acts travelled the country via syndicates. Our local theatre, the Pontiac, is pictured towards the end of the Vaudeville era, as operators were beginning to combine live acts with films. (Note the marquee – Looks like we had our share of big-time headliners!)

Vaudeville was no vacation. Poorly heated theatres in Winter. Stifling heat in Summer. Several shows a day, constant travel. However, performers did tend to stick with it. In the days before assistance and social security, even a small-time performer could make decent money. But. With the Syndicates (who owned and operated the theatres) quite literally running the show – names like Pantages, Loew’s, Albee, and Keith-Orpheum – the performers felt that they needed a union. This had become an industry. By 1907, vaudeville was earning $30 million a year.

Enjoying the bulk of that profit, the biggest Keith-Albee syndicate pretty much controlled the industry. In fact, in several instances, they crushed infant unions founded by the performers. When a union called “The White Rats” emerged and began to show signs of succeeding, Edward F. Albee set up a company union called National Vaudeville Artists, refusing to book performers who did not join his group. And if you didn’t play Albee’s Keith-Orpheum circuit, you pretty much had no work. Albee had a near monopoly.

Albee kept his so-called union under his firm control, silencing all opposition to his often abusive treatment of performers. After all, a union run by the syndicate was hardly a union at all. However, on down the road, Albee’s NVA stuck. And although under the control of Albee, it did manage to do a few decent things. A beautiful clubhouse was opened in Manhattan’s theatre district. (It’s now the Church of Scientology on West 46th Street.) And eventually, Albee built a retirement and rest home for Vaudeville artists on the top of a gorgeous hillside in Saranac Lake, New York.

In 2010, the gorgeous facility is Saranac Village at Will Rogers, an independent living community for seniors. What’s the Will Rogers connection? As Vaudeville was in its decline in the 1930s, famous Big-timer and philanthropist Will Rogers and his Will Rogers Institute took over the place, and began caring for tuberculosis-stricken entertainers. The facility was the Institute’s home TB and pulmonary cases and research. In 1976, the Institute moved to White Plains, New York. After a few failed attempts at ownership, the historic facility became Saranac Village … although, around here, we still call it “Will Rogers.”

I played a rehearsal on the old stage last night. (Think of the famous feet that crossed that small stage!) Saranac Village hosts a good many concerts, plays, and community events each year. The care and restoration work that has gone into the building is just stunning. What a gorgeous place. It’s a wonderful thing, you know? To have a historic landmark so well cared for, and so involved in hosting and presenting community events.

Cheers to you, Saranac Village! You’re awesome.

Thanks to Bunk’s Place as always for the gorgeous photos and postcard images, and thanks to MWanner for the wonderful area photos, and documentation of Saranac Lake’s history.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Playing the Big Time in Saranac Lake

  1. Sometimes I think that you worry that all we want to hear about is the chickens and how things are at the RV, but I for one also really enjoy these little tangents when you share with us your interesting knowledge of theater, history and whatnot. You’re broadening my horizons, don’t be shy! LOL I confess I don’t know much at all about vaudeville, however I do have somewhat of an interest in the stars that followed soon after (Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, just read a biography of Danny Kaye, etc.) and from everything I’ve read it is clear that vaudeville was a huge influence on those stars and the era of movies that followed. I had no idea about the “Syndicates”. Very interesting post!

  2. As a student I worked in the clinical lab at Will Rogers Hospital. I even drew Lila Lee’s blood.

  3. James Kirkwood Jr, Lila Lee’s son, was a pretty decent playwright. I forget what his father did, but I know that he was in show business also. Likely film.

  4. I have to confess that I thought the official name WAS still Will Rogers. Saranac Village? Nope. No idea. Thanks for the lesson!

  5. In Nov. of ’08 I went to a show there, and was absolutely in awe of that wonderful building. I didn’t know the history at the time. If those floor boards on the stage could talk!

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