UTICA— The Stanley Center for the Arts Theater has been a staple of the downtown Utica landscape for 91 years. It has been the center of both live and film theater since its construction in 1928, and those in charge said they have no intention of slowing down now.
Former Stanley Theater Board member, now Executive Director, Jerry Kraus, said the most satisfying thing he’s done since his appointment back in June of 2013, has been to increase the activity of events at the theater for a very specific reason.
“As soon as I came in my mission, personally, was to try and get events here so people could come in and see this beautiful theater,” Kraus said. “It was a crying shame there was a beautiful theater like this in our community that wasn’t being utilized and I thought it should be. Once we started booking events we found the public thought the same thing. It was, and is, a great place to come see concerts, Broadway shows and community events.”
Kraus also said the Stanley can accommodate more than just shows.
“We have rooms here that can host everything from baby showers to retirement parties,” Kraus said. “We can accommodate weddings, wedding photos and business seminars. So just increasing the amount of activity here was a goal of mine and we’ve done pretty good at that, adding more and more every year, a wide variety to bring in everybody in the community, the young, the middle aged and the seniors. We wanted everyone to say they were proud the Stanley Theater is here, we want them to tell people that because it’s their community theater.”
Other events Kraus said he feels contributes to his “variety” philosophy include the recently held Chicken Riggie Fest, the antique festival held at the theater, and dance competitions coming in the spring. The dance events will bring dancers from Buffalo, Binghamton, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany and other places in the region to compete, bringing their families and friends who stay at area hotels and eat in the area’s restaurants, shop in area stores and gas stations.
“Additionally, we do cheerleading competitions in the fall. We do bodybuilding competitions on the weekends,” Kraus said. “That’s just another way we’ve added variety to the things happening here.”
And then there’s the music.
“Whether it’s a big band coming in, or a touring band coming with a local opener we always do our best to put the local musicians out there,” Kraus said.
Kraus said its not just the beauty of the Stanley so many are impressed with, but also the sound and acoustics. Professional stand-up comedian and TV personality Jerry Seinfeld told Kraus personally he was really impressed with the beauty of the former movie palace, and so was the rock band America, who said on stage during their performance they’ve played everywhere and the Stanley was “the most beautiful place we ever played.”
But it was senior master showman and crooner Tony Bennett, who paid the Stanley the best compliment of all when the tour for his “Duets II” CD included a night at the Stanley in 2011.
“He wanted to prove the acoustics of the theater,” Kraus said. “So he sang a song to the back of the house without using a microphone.”
But still, that is not what Kraus is most proud of. His most gratifying feeling comes from the theater’s accomplishment of establishing a high school musical preview series, which gives the opportunity to students of five area high schools to come and perform 15 to 20 minutes of their upcoming spring musicals.
“ I love this event,” said “The Doctor”- as Kraus has been referred to for over 35 years as one of the Mohawk Valley’s most popular rock and roll radio DJs. “I think it’s a great opportunity for the public to come in and see the wonderful local talent we have in our area high schools. The students do a segment of their singing and their acting, and in between they might do a solo, and it’s great to see them having such a great time onstage. And who knows — from here they might go on to community, college or even Broadway theater and one day say it all started for them at the Stanley.”
Kraus also said he is so very proud of the Stanley’s Summer Theater Camp program of which there have been three, and are looking forward to another this upcoming summer. The camp provides high school students the chance to learn over a three-week period with another week to perform. The camp focuses on all aspects of a theater production: acting, singing, dancing, but also stage management, set building, prop mastering and wardrobe dressing. The students are taught by accomplished theater instructors who are high school drama teachers and college interns with theater backgrounds. Once the students have completed their rehearsals the theater opens up the doors on a Friday night and it’s showtime.
Kraus said with all he’s accomplished in his five-year tenure as executive director, he could not have done any of it without the help and support of his staff.
“I have a great staff here, a dynamite staff,” Kraus said. “They handle a lot of stuff behind the scenes: the accounting, the box-office, the maintenance of the building and everything in between. And our Stanley volunteers are awesome as well, because you know they’re just here for the shows, and they do things like open the doors, usher people to their seats and work the coffee bar. I think any theater staff will tell you its volunteers are truly the backbone of its operation.”
With Kraus’ retirement just about a month away he says he looking forward to some time off. He’s going to Florida to watch his Port St. Lucie Mets win a few spring-training games and when he returns, never having lost his “jock-chops,” he’ll be back at his mic for his Sunday morning radio show, “The Recovery Room” 9 a.m. to noon on 92.7 FM The Drive and still be involved with the theater, albeit in an unofficial capacity, as he has all the confidence in incoming Executive Director Lisa Wilsey.
A native of San Francisco, Wilsey was actually hired by the Utica Comets hockey organization a few years ago after working with the San Jose Sharks. While she initially planned to only stay here a couple seasons, she got married to a local gentleman and now that she’s married to a Utican, Utica is her new home town, she said.
“It’s been a great change for me,” Wilsey said. “Sometimes when you don’t expect anything you get the best surprises.”
Wilsey said she comes from a music background having worked in artist management for a number of years with HK Management, which later became Front Line Management, at one time a leader in the business of music and movie management. Initially, she worked with Jeff Lynne of ELO fame, Lenny Kravitz and Steely Dan. Later, after transferring to Los Angeles she worked with The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith and Michael Jackson.
When Wilsely decided to leave music management for something that would keep her home more often she applied for a job with the San Jose Sharks of the National Hockey League. When the team fell on uncertain times she saw the Comets were looking for someone and applied and came to Utica. Meeting Kraus, while working together in joint ventures between their two organizations they developed a professional respect for one another. Wilsey and her husband’s company underwrote some shows for the theater and Wilsey said she fell in love with the Stanley.
When Wisey heard Kraus was leaving, she said she instantly fell into panic mode, and called him.
“Where are you going, is it true?” Wilsey asked.
Wilsey said Krause calmed her down and said he would still be around. Wilsey applied for the job, along with several other candidates, and began the interview process. When Wilsey found out she was selected to fill Kraus’ shoes she said she was very excited. Wilsey said she hopes to continue the same quality entertainment the Stanley is known for and said how much she respects Kraus’ working style.
“He never stresses,” Wilsey said. “He respects his employees and they are just phenomenal. They have a lot of pride working here. You can tell they respect where they get to work and how much they appreciate it. There’s always a sense by everyone nothing is never not my job. They take ownership of problems and situations that arise.
As far as the entertainment side of things, Wilsey seems fixed on preserving the history of the Genesee Street landmark.
“I think he [Kraus] has done a great job with the variety of the calendar,” Wilsey said. “I want to keep building on that, make the theater as busy as we can. I think one of the big things Jerry touched on that’s very poignant is we can always talk about the big shows that come through town, but its really the community’s theater, the city’s theater, the region’s theater and all of these shows like the cheerleaders show, the high school musical previews and summer camp program, those are the shows that keep the Stanley the community’s theater. “