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In 2020, a little radium is good for the arts

Jan 1, 2020

An architectural rendering of the new George Eastman Museum entrance.
Credit Provided

It was a little more than seven years ago that a handful of diesel fume-belching bulldozers, excavators and front-end loaders began gnawing away at a nondescript parking lot in downtown Rochester. Broken brick and chunks of asphalt were hauled away in dump trucks. Like a team of archaeologists revealing the signs of a forgotten civilization, work crews scraped away layers of debris to uncover the foundation of the old RKO Palace Theater.

Gone were the chandeliers suspended from the domed ceiling, the marble floors, the Persian rugs, the torchiers lining the walls. Now, what was once an elegant lobby was a vast hole, leading to the theater's still-visible sloped floor and its terraced steps, where 3,200 chairs were once lined up in gently curving rows. 

When the Keith Albee Palace Theater, as it was called then, opened in 1928, it brought in The Ink Spots, Bob Hope, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and even celebrity dog Rin Tin Tin, performing tricks. And movies like "The Robe," accompanied by searchlights plying the sky.

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By 1965, the RKO had been deemed no longer worthy of occupying that block between Clinton Avenue and St. Paul Street. It was demolished. Today, after the heavy equipment smelling of diesel fuel had cleared away what was left of the foundation, that space is home to the Transit Center. 

As a frequent user of mass transit, I have been there many times. It is a fine example of clean, modern architecture. Classical music is piped through the sound system, to calm the nerves of people awaiting buses, and the teenagers milling about. But it is no RKO Palace Theater. Over the course of 90 years, this spot is a reminder that we have lost the drive to build grand things that are, in themselves, an event.

It is inevitable that old buildings die. Perhaps their plumbing bursts like a bad heart, or they have succumbed to age and are no longer capable of handling the jobs that they once held. 

But preserving our heritage, and continuing to make use of it, is cause for celebration. So it is with The Little Theatre, The George Eastman Museum, Parcel 5 and the Fort Hill Performing Arts Center. All of which enter the new year with new life.

The conglomeration that is the George Eastman Museum and Dryden Theatre gets a significant overhaul starting on Jan. 6, with groundbreaking for a new visitors center, café, restrooms and a renovation of the education and meeting hall. The nearly $5 million project is being called the largest structural change to the building since the 1989 addition of the gallery and collections building. 

This goes hand-in-hand with repairs to the colonnade, the glassed-in hallway that overlooks the Eastman gardens. Also just arriving in the mail, December's $600,000 grant from the New York State Office for Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, for the restoration of the museum's historic garden structures. With all of this construction, the Eastman Museum will be closed through January, the Eastman House will be closed through Feb. 13, and the Dryden Theatre and café will be closed until June 3.

Money for the arts! Let's see where it's going:

Parcel 5, once the site of Midtown Plaza, now the famous gravel lot off East Main Street, has been the subject of many architectural renderings of marvelous things to come. Performing arts centers, multi-use shopping districts, condos. 

But now Mayor Lovely Warren is pushing a new idea. One that seems doable. A huge and permanent tent, to cover much of Parcel 5, and convert it into an indoor/outdoor entertainment and concert venue. For those who Google, the idea is similar to Kansas City's Power & Light District.

Built in 1928 as the Canandaigua Academy Auditorium, the newly renovated Fort Hill Performing Arts Center seats nearly 400 people. The 6 p.m. Jan. 11 grand opening includes performances by Canandaigua native and Nazareth College grad Michael Park, who has appeared on Broadway and won a pair of Daytime Emmy Awards for his work on the soap "As the World Turns." He's also been on this season's Netflix show "Stranger Things." He'll be joined by Penfield native Nicolette Hart, who's been on Broadway and was one of Bette Midler's backup singers. The night also features the Rochester City Ballet, the Rochester Oratorio Society and Finger Lakes Opera. The 1 p.m. Jan. 12 show has the Finger Lakes Concert Band, a bluegrass trio and the Diana Jacobs Band. For tickets, call (585) 412-6043

A crowd turned out in June 2017 to celebrate the re-lighting of The Little Theatre marquee.
Credit Scott Pukos/WXXI file photo

At age 90, The Little Theatre's facelift has been ongoing for a while. The removal of the giant construction-debris container on East Avenue signals the end of the most recent renovations, a re-imagined entryway into Theater One, with a new box office and concession stand. And it all looks perfectly period.

There have been years when it looked like Rochester might lose The Little; it fell on hard times, with a brief period when it was a porno theater. But look at it now: Five screens, and a café with live music five or six nights a week. And that beautiful new sign out front, a mix of old-school neon and 21st-century digital that draws patrons of art films like a welder's torch draws a facilities manager.

Jim Malley, facilities manager at The Little, is one who saw the light. He found a set of disassembled sconces in a back room of the theater, "with tons of stuff piled on top of these very fragile globes made of radium glass that hasn't been around since the 30s, since they thought it might be radioactive," he says.

Radium glass is indeed radioactive, but registers such low levels that it is not considered dangerous, unless you're eating it. Good news for Malley, who had the pieces stacked up on his desk for a while. "I thought they were something really special and quite original from the building," he says. "I didn't realize they were that big until we put them all together."

They're 5 feet tall, and now back where they belong, on the interior walls of The Little Theatre One. The architect working on the restoration found some old photos of the sconces, with little more than the outline of the fixtures visible. But that was enough to re-assemble them, and allow for the re-creation of some of the missing pieces. Historic House Parts on South Avenue not only restored the nickel plating, but helped re-engineer the pieces so that they are more stable, and also now illuminated from the top as well as the bottom, to better show off the eerie yellow-green of the glass.

Malley has found other artifacts that might emerge after decades lost in dark rooms. Candy-bar wrappers from the 1930s, cigarette packages, wooden packing crates for film reels and a zinc case that likely held old, highly flammable nitrate films. And what appears to be a list of phone numbers and codes, all connected to downtown theaters. "They were on almost every block downtown," Malley says. The RKO Palace Theater was one of them. In an era of Cold War fear, should downtown Rochester come under enemy attack, the public could gather in theaters to await further instruction.

Fortunately, downtown Rochester's theaters remained generally safe from bombs, until Tim Allen began making films.

Dotting the i's

An episode of Nate DiMeo's podcast, The Memory Palace, focuses on George Eastman.
Credit Emily Berl

Nate DiMeo's podcast, "The Memory Palace" was one of the subtle highlights of this fall's KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival. Sitting at a desk on the Kilbourn Hall stage, DiMeo read, to accompanying music, the story of George Eastman.

To tell a story right, you need to know where to start. DiMeo began this one on the day in March 1932, when the 77-year-old Eastman sensed he was fading, perhaps heading for confinement to a wheelchair. Dismissing his doctors for a moment, he wrote a note: "To my friends. My work is done. Why wait?" Then he shot himself in the heart. DiMeo told of how movie theaters in Rochester dimmed their lights that night, out of respect.

Before he shot himself, Eastman had spread a sheet out on the bed to minimize cleanup. "He died as he lived, efficiently," DiMeo said. That was his nature. DiMeo recalled how Eastman carefully dotted the i's on his will, efficiently, just as he'd cataloged the roses in his garden, or made packing lists for one of his African safaris. Or precisely calibrated the sprocket holes for film to pass through projectors.

A man consumed by details. Eastman was 7 years old when his father died, DiMeo reminds us. The impact was significant. "When you lose control," DiMeo said, "all you want to do is control things."

The episode, "Dotting I's," is available at thememorypalace.us/2019/12/dotting-is/. Two more DiMeo podcasts -- one on daredevil Sam Patch -- will be posted in January.

The Womxn of Woke Art

WOC•Art -- that's pronounced "woke art" -- celebrates entering its second year with "Welcome to Our World -- of the Womxn Divine" on Jan. 4 at the art collective's third-floor studios at 215 Tremont St.

"Womxn" has entered the lexicon as an explicit inclusion of transgender women and women of color. The multi-generational, multi-discipline collective of black women and women of color was created in response to their frustration with inequality in the arts.

They are artists, dancers, writers and arts organizations movers and shakers. Many of them have long established themselves on the local scene: Founder Rachel DeGuzman heads a consulting service called 21st Century Arts, Rachel McKibbens is an acclaimed poet and visual artist, N'Jelle Gage-Thorne is co-founder and president of FuturPointe Dance.

The event is described as a "loft party," with art, performances and food and drinks. Three sessions are scheduled: at 8, 9 and 10 p.m. Tickets ($25) are available through eventbrite.com and at the WOC•Art Facebook page.

Jeff Spevak is WXXI's Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.