Summer Season in full swing at Fort Salem Theatre in Salem, N.Y.
SALEM, N. Y. -- Mr. Green Jeans would approve.
You would have to be "of a certain age" or a historian of television to be aware of him, but for those in neither category, Mr. Green Jeans was Captain Kangaroo's sidekick back when that pre-Sesame Street era show ruled the roost for children's television.
Jay Kerr, the artistic director of the Fort Salem Theater, held the cue cards for Mr. Green Jeans during his first job out of college, and Kerr went on to be his best man at his wedding (Mr. Green Jeans -- Hugh Brannum in real life -- returned the favor at Kerr's nuptials). But he's come a long way since then.
So has the theater he owns and manages with his wife, Lynne. Located on the street that becomes Route 153 and the road to Rupert, Vt., a short distance away, the theater began its life as a church in pre-Revolutionary War America. Colonial troops were quartered there, and during the course of the Revolution it burned down. So did a second church built on the same site. A third one, constructed in 1832, survived.
"You can still see the charred beams in the basement," Kerr said.
But in the long run the small town couldn't support two Presbyterian churches, so in the 1970s it became a theater. In 2005, after a long career in musical theater, composition and vocal instruction, Kerr and his wife decided it was time to start phasing out of life in New York and New Jersey, and spend more time in rural upstate New York where they had a vacation home in Hebron\. But not being ready to retire fully, they wanted a business to run, and thought they'd found it when they came across a general store in Danby that was up for sale. When that didn't work out, they stumbled across the Salem theater, which was also on the market, and "it seemed like a bargain at the time," Kerr said.
They bought it in 2006, and while Kerr has probably had moments to wonder how accurate that assessment was, it's been an eventful and creative ride ever since, he said.
Fort Salem Theater operates a 199 seat-Mainstage and a smaller, 45 seat cabaret. Kerr also teaches acting and singing.
What separates Fort Salem from many other community theaters is its emphasis on musicals -- in fact, that's all they do. There's drama, but it's sung. And a lot of it is original music too, not just another version of a time honored and well-known show. Kerr is also a prolific songwriter as well as artistic director, producer and business manager who writes his own press releases and markets his shows.
"With a musical, audiences know that you will likely be able to laugh and have a good time," he said.
Musicals also fed on his Broadway background, and he made them different, he added.
Finding the talent for the shows has not worried him, he said. He finds a lot of talent locally, and he can also draw on an extensive network of perf orming artists he has met along the way.
Then there's the serendipity factor. Kerr was working with one high school student on vocal training, and the name of the student's theater instructor, Jim Raposa, kept coming up. Finally, Kerr decided he needed to meet this guy and called him up.
Raposa works as a teacher in Burr and Burton Academy's theater and performing arts department, and the same student had a role in the musical the department was rehearsing. Kerr was looking for someone to fill a role in a musical called "Star Crossed" back in 2011, and Raposa eventually performed in it.
Returning the favor, Kerr wound up helping Raposa with a couple of his high school shows, serving as a musical director and vocal trainer.
"What's amazing is that he has this little small theater out in Salem, and he's able to attract Broadway-caliber actors to his place," Raposa said. "He's able to bring musical theater to the area."
And in many cases, it's new and original -- an actor gets to create a character from scratch, unburdened by the way someone else interpreted the role, he added.
Last year Raposa, who had always wanted to do a show honoring George M. Cohan, one of the towering figures of American 20th century theater, got his wish in a single person show, "George M. Cohan Tonight," singing many of Cohan's classic tunes from the American musical canon, such as "Over There," and "Give My Regards to Broadway."
Then there's Jerry Gretzinger, a former news anchor with WRBG CBS Channel 6 in Albany, NY., who has frequently performed with news colleagues Benita Zahn and Jessica Layton in a trio known as "The Singing Anchors." Together and separately they have performed several times at Fort Salem in musical reviews. Earlier this summer, Gretzinger appeared in "Women in My Life," a show based loosely on Kerr's past. Kerr had written a musical based around a singer's complicated personal life years ago, but updated it with new songs and edits to fit Gretzinger, who played a cocktail lounge singer with a fictional backup trio that included an ex-wife, an ex-girlfriend and a present girlfriend. As the subtitle says, "One man's fantasy is another man's train wreck."
Gretzinger said he enjoyed performing in the little theater because of its charm and tasteful restoration -- "you get a really good vibe going in there," he said.
But the main attraction for him as an entertainer was having Kerr to work with, he said; he has a rare quality to push a performer to dig deep and pull out the best an entertainer can give.
"He's honest, he puts it out there, he's real," Gretzinger said. "He has a vision for the show that may take awhile to emerge, but eventually it does."
Marketing and getting the word out about the shows is often the hardest part of the entire cycle, Kerr said. In the old days, he used to be able to count on newspaper reviews and press releases, but industry cutbacks have put limits on that in recent years. And with a generally older audience that may or may not check Facebook or other social media regularly, he has to get creative,.
"It will be interesting to see whether the current younger audience demographic groups support live theater to the same degree," he said.
If only Mr. Green Jeans were still around to encourage that thought.
If you go ...
What: Summer season at Fort Salem Theater.
Where: 11 East Broadway, Salem, N.Y.
What: ‘Can You Hear Me Now?'
When: Aug. 1 to10
8 p.m. - Fridays and Saturdays
2 p.m. Sunday matinees
What: ‘Signature Songs: The Songs That Made Famous Singers Famous'
When: 8 p.m. Friday Aug. 15 and Saturday Aug. 16
2 p.m. Sunday Aug. 17
Admission (for both): $30 for adults, $27 for seniors, $15 twelve and under
Information: fortsalemtheater.com, or call 518-854-9200.
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