City Beat and Arts & Entertainment Editor
Neighbors: Snippets of Life From Your Community
Who: Dawn Oesch.
Where: Saratoga Sweets Candy Co., Washington Street.
Q. What are you doing today?
A. I’m making bunnies. Chocolate bunnies, and Tall Bunny - the big guy is 2-1/2 pounds.
Q. Where are you from originally?
A. Lake Placid.
Q. How long have you been in Saratoga Springs?
A. Nineteen years. I love the city more than anything. Moving here, I loved that it had the same charm as Lake Placid, but on a bigger scale.
Q. How has Saratoga changed over the years?
A. We’ve been getting more commercial with more big-box stores coming into our area, which is a little scary. There’s room for everybody, but you don’t want your quaint town to turn into Everyday U.S.A. because you can go anywhere and see these places. So, keep it to the minimum we have now. No more thank you.
Q. What’s the best thing about Saratoga?
The people who live here. Some say this is a tourist town, that money falls from the sky, but any business person will tell you it’s not like that, especially when they first open. What makes it is the locals. I love that I know their names and what they want. That’s the best part of it.
Q. What is the biggest challenge you personally face?
A. My dogs destroying the garbage can every day. I have two dogs, both beagle mixes: a beagle basset I rescued last year who’s three or four, and Sawyer – a six-year-old beagle border collie who’s stubborn and smart I’ve had since he was a puppy. With the garbage can, I even have a lock on it and they still get into it.
Q. What is the biggest challenge you face business-wise?
I’ve been here for 19 years and I love my little store. This is my baby and I would like to be here for another 19, but our landlord sold our building, or is in the process of selling it. We can possibly go in the new building (when completed), but where do you go while they’re building the new building?
Q. Tell me a joke
A. My favorite is a knock-knock joke. It goes like this:
Q. You are active in regional theater?
A. My favorite theaters to work in are Home Made Theater in the State Park, and the Local Actors Guild at the Arts Center.
Last fall I directed “Shrek The Musical” at Home Made Theater. We had a cast of 32 and a tech crew of 15. There was a three-week run and it was awesome. The next thing I’m going to do is “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” That has a cast of about 50. that will be next spring, so I can start planning now. I’m a planaholic. I like to be uber-organized.
SARATOGA SPRINGS - Did you know a freight train disaster at the Saratoga Railroad Station in 1940 resulted in nine injuries and two deaths? How about the mid-1970s incident that saw a sniper open fire on a west side elementary school playground that wounded two children? Or, that the Saratoga Race Course provided the scenery for a handful of Hollywood movies - from “Saratoga” in 1937 to “Seabiscuit” in 2003 - to say nothing of novelist Ian Fleming’s visit to the track to conduct research for his James Bond book, “Diamonds Are Forever.”
Saratoga’s history, from the well-documented to the obscure, can be unearthed in a handful of places in the city, most of which are readily open to the public and provide a wealth of resources, if one knows where to look.
“The city historian, the museum, and the library are three separate entities – we all work together - and there are others,” says city historian Mary Ann Fitzgerald, as she muscles open the heavy vault door inside her office at the Saratoga Springs Heritage Area Visitor Center. Here, Fitzgerald says, people need to know what they’re looking for before they come in, because of the overwhelming number of primary materials and other original documents.
Inside the vault, the shelves reveal handwritten council meeting minutes dating to the city’s incorporation in 1915, criminal dockets from 1876, fire disaster records, urban renewal papers, and countless other original documents, including a prized signature by Saratoga Springs founder Gideon Putnam that dates to 1810. The vault is perused largely by archivists and historians searching for original source material.
Across the street, the Saratoga Springs History Museum is being prepped for its upcoming exhibition - “Internationally Famous” – featuring Cris Alexander - a celebrity photographer and artist, and Shaun O’Brien, a dancer with the New York City Ballet. The couple moved to Saratoga Springs in the early ‘70s and were together for more than 60 years. Collectively, their lives trace a line through the art, dance and celebrity world of much of the 20th century.
In addition to its changing exhibitions and its permanent displays – original furniture and gaming equipment sit in the historic 19th century casino – the museum’s library houses research-friendly manuscripts, diaries, and business records of prominent local families like the Batchellors and the Walworths, as well as rarities documenting Caffè Lena, and the life of Frank Sullivan.
A third aspect of the museum’s offering is the George S. Bolster Collection. Culled from approximately 360,000 images, glass plates and negatives, the compilation depicts a long-gone era of city hotels and lake houses, public events, visiting celebrities, and time-captured scenes of the race course and private homes in their original splendor.
“People looking for pictures come to me,” says Bolster Collection Curator John Conners. “Some of them date back to the 1870s and every time I look at the pictures I still find something different, something I haven’t seen before.”
In 1928, the city’s borders cradled 14,000 year-round residents and housed 16 churches, 287 retail stores, five grade schools, one high school and two parochial schools. The house numbers and owners’ names can be found in the pages of the city directories - beginning in 1868 - at the Saratoga Room, located inside the Saratoga Springs Public Library. A few yards away, visitors can unearth the everyday lives of early 20th century residents in Sophie Goldstein’s oral narratives in the Saratoga County Jewish History Project.
The Saratoga Room also boasts a multi-media collective of Saratoga-related films and documentaries, publications, illustrated newspapers, cookbooks, street maps with numbered houses dating to the 1800s, and a popular collection of Saratoga cookbooks. Frank Sullivan’s personal library consisting of more than 100 books and his personal typewriter are here, as are a treasure-trove of high school yearbooks, a century old.
Discoveries To Be Made: Did You Know?
The New York Knickerbockers and Boston Celtics played an NBA exhibition game at Convention Hall in 1955.
Sylvia Plath found peace on earth during her residence at Yaddo in the winter of 1959.
The Olympic Torch passed through Saratoga Springs in 2001.
True Crime: The bullet-riddled body of the victim of a suspected “mob hit” was found on the steps of Saratoga Hospital in 1936; A grisly discovery of the dismembered body of a young woman was made at Saratoga Lake a decade later.
Sophie Tucker, Senor Wences, and “a breathtaking ensemble of lovely girls!” performed at The Piping Rock in 1947; 16-year-old Philip Seymour Hoffman studied acting at Skidmore in the 1980s; The band U2 performed at Saratoga Raceway – the current grounds of Saratoga Casino – in 1992, and Bob Dylan earned $50 for a two-night stand at Caffè Lena during his first visit to Saratoga Springs in 1961.
Fires: The city’s worst occurred in 1955 on Caroline Street and claimed the lives of eight people; The “Great Fire of 1957” destroyed a block of the downtown business district on Broadway, and eight years later the 5,000-seat Convention Hall was destroyed in a mammoth blaze.
Activism: In 1965, more than 600 Saratogians took part in a “Stand Up To Be Counted” silent March down Broadway in support of Civil Rights.
Some Saratoga History Resources – note some are by-appointment.
Crandall Public Library, Center for Folklife, History, & Cultural Programs, Glens Falls. Phone: 518-792-6508, Todd DeGarmo (Director) x237; Erika Wolfe Burke (Archivist) x238. Web: www.crandalllibrary.org.
Saratoga National Historical Park, 648 Route 32, Stillwater. Phone: 518-664-9821 ext. 224. E-mail: Contact Form at website - www.nps.gov/sara.
Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation, 112 Spring Street, Suite 203, Saratoga Springs. Phone: 518- 587-5030. www.saratogapreservation.org.
The Saratoga Room at the Saratoga Springs Public Library, 49 Henry St., Saratoga Springs. Phone: 518-584-7860, x255. E-mail: Contact form at website - https://www.sspl.org/research/local_history/collections/.
NYS Military Museum & Veterans Research Center, 61 Lake Ave., Saratoga Springs. Phone: 518-581-5100. Web: www.dmna.state.ny.us/historic/mil-hist.htm.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — The City Council held a lengthy and at-times heated discussion Tuesday night about whether to fund a Special Election in May or June as requested by the Charter Review Commission, to potentially change the way the city is governed.
Since its inception as a city in 1915, Saratoga Springs has operated under a Commission form of Government – that is, with four commissioners and one mayor each running separate departments and all having equal say. Mandated to review the City Charter every 10 years, the Charter Review Commission, a 15-person group appointed by members of the City Council, recommended bringing to voters a proposal that the city adopt a Council-Manager form of governing. Under such a plan, the council would be charged with hiring a professional city manager to carry out policies.
A measure to fund the Commission’s $46,000 administrative budget – which includes fees for legal consulting, sending informational mailers to residents and a clerk to transcribe meeting minutes – received unanimous council approval, but a $37,000 request to fund a Special Election in May or June was rejected by a 3-2 vote.
City Mayor Joanne Yepsen, who voted to support funding the Special Election, said if the Charter Commission desired to hold a vote in May, then it was their right to do so. “I think we’ve got to let the voters decide. I don’t think it’s up to us - when it should be, or what they should put on the referendum,” Yepsen said. “I think it’s in our best interests to move this forward regardless of what we all think personally.”
Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan, who vehemently opposed funding a Special Election, argued that the council’s actions are not politically motivated whereas the Charter Commission’s are, and received like-minded commentary from Accounts Commissioner John Franck. “To say this group has not advocated for a change in the form of government is blinking at reality,” Franck said. “They’ve been disparaging the current form of government, but telling about this new form of government. They’re not supposed to be doing this. They’re supposed to be educating.”
Franck, Madigan, and DPW Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco rejected the funding request, and each stated the public would be better served – both in cost savings and by a larger voter turnout - should the referendum be held in November.
“I think it disenfranchises people. This is voter suppression, I don’t care what anybody says,“ said Scirocco.
Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen, like Mayor Yepsen, voted in favor of funding the Special Election. He argued that the issue requires its own attention rather than it being added to this November’s Election Day slate, which will include all five council member seats up for vote.
“I think this is such an important issue and a vital part of looking at where our city is going that it needs to be decided upon separately, and in an environment not muddled by the political intrigue that often comes with our November elections and all the special interests that rise up,” Mathiesen said. Following the vote, Yepsen attempted to provide information about the ramifications of the council’s vote and what the next steps might be regarding the Charter Commission’s potential actions, but was not permitted to do so by other members of the council.
“This will come down to a lawsuit, I suspect, and the courts will decide what they’re going to do with this,” Franck said. “There may even be a lawsuit at the City Council level.”
SARATOGA SPRINGS — Galleries, museums and classic architecture. A cinema. Public parks. Taverns, restaurants and cafes. Together they are the elements that contribute to community vibrancy.
But, for the past half-century, one noticeably missing piece in this walkable city has been the lack of a year-round, mid-sized venue – an unfulfilled need since Saratoga’s 5,000-seat Convention Hall was destroyed by fire in 1966.
With an extensive renovation of Universal Preservation Hall set to get underway, that cultural vacancy is set to soon be filled. “This will be an acoustically perfect theater-in-the-round and will hold about 750 people,” said Teddy Foster, campaign director at UPH. “There will be a lot of music, Broadway cabaret and live theater.”
The current schedule of events will conclude in five weeks and a $5.5 million renovation of the historic building is slated to get underway in June. When UPH re-opens in the fall of 2018, it will house new heating and air conditioning systems, a kitchen, an elevator and new light and sound fixtures with acoustic treatments.
“It will have everything,” Foster said. The main room’s flexibility will allow for the relocation of seats as events dictate and a community room located on the building’s lower level will hold another 140 people. New entry doors will be set on the building’s Broadway facing-side to provide theater-goers close proximity to a 450-vehicle public parking garage on Woodlawn Avenue.
The Victorian Gothic structure on Washington Street was built in 1871 and served as a Methodist church and a gathering place. Teddy Roosevelt, Frederick Douglass and William Howard Taft to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg have each taken a turn atop the main stage during the building’s 146-year history. A century after its construction, the building began to fall into disrepair and the church sat empty for several years. In 2000, the city condemned the building and members of the community rallied to save the structure from demolition.
Today, the nonprofit group UPH owns the building and maintains a 21-person board of directors. A local Baptist congregation – which continues to host weekend services at the hall - owns the land on which the church sits. An initial wave of renovation work began in 2003 after $3 million was raised. The current Capital Campaign - The Road To Opening Night – is ongoing and has secured about 90 percent of the $5.6 million it seeks to raise, Foster says. A fundraiser will be held in May at Saratoga National.
In 2015, UPH got an added boost when it became an affiliate of Proctors. The Schenectady based organization will lend their expertise in securing programming and coordinating ticket sales and marketing, in addition to other areas. Proctors was built in 1926 in downtown Schenectady and was one of a dozen vaudeville houses along the east coast of the country. A half-century later, it was among the last standing theaters of a deserted downtown landscape. Like UPH, it also was saved from the wrecking ball.
Last week Proctors’ creative director, Richard Lovrich, and its publicist, Michael Eck, staged a slide show presentation and discussion at UPH based on the release of their new coffee-table book, “Encore: Proctors at 90,” which depicts everything from the backstage application of character makeup for a production of “The Lion King,” to images capturing gracious remembrances of a theater visit by Sophia Loren. It is a narrative of renewal and rebirth, and a tale of a city and a theater taking turns saving each other, the authors say.
After undergoing a transformative restoration of its own, the historic theater today features everything from ZZ Top, this weekend, to the staging of “Hamilton,” during its 2018-19 season. Of UPH, Proctors CEO Phillip Morris says he envisions a welcoming place to gather and a cultural heart of the city.
After the Saratoga Springs venue reopens with its 45-foot-tall ceilings, bell tower and walnut and ash staircases that feed into the main hall, it is anticipated it will stage 200 or so annual events. “I like to say I imagine the hall as Saratoga’s living room,” Foster said.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — It was born of a community’s compassion on Christmas Eve in 2013, in the aftermath of tragedy that claimed as victim one of its own. On Valentine’s Day it received a gift of permanence that promises to help provide a successful continuum of care for its survivors.
Local business owner Ed Mitzen, and his wife Lisa, announced Tuesday they will pay for the costs of a new Code Blue homeless shelter to be built on the current Shelters of Saratoga property on Walworth Street. Shelters of Saratoga, or S.O.S., oversees the Code Blue program, and siting an emergency shelter at a permanent location has been a high priority following a series of temporary shelter venues that have been staged at St. Peter’s Parish Center, the Salvation Army building and the Soul Saving Station Church.
“This phenomenal gift solves the consistent challenge we have faced over the last few years of providing a permanent home for Code Blue,” said Michael Finocchi, executive director of S.O.S. Initial plans call for a two-story building with a large kitchen, laundry room, men’s and women’s sleeping rooms, multiple showers and bathrooms, a large storage area for donated food and clothing, and a small Code Blue office. Local firms Bonacio Construction and the LA Group will be involved in the development of the building and both have agreed to forego any profits to keep the costs as low as possible. Design plans will be evaluated by the city’s Land Use boards. Finocchi said ideally, the new building will consist of 6,500 square feet of space and house about 50 beds. The hope is that the new building will be operational by Nov. 1.
Need for Shelter is Great
The average number of overnight guests this season – 41 per night – is an all-time high, as is the number of openings – 89 nights as of Valentine’s Day – already surpassing all previous season totals, with presumably more to come til warmer climes prevail. The shelter initially opened when temperatures dipped below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Earlier this year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order which directed emergency shelters to operate when temperatures dropped below 32 degrees.
The need for a city emergency shelter during the winter months is great. Between 2007 and 2015, although homelessness nationwide decreased by 11 percent, it increased in New York, rising by 41 percent, according to the 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Between 2014 and 2015 alone, New York State’s homeless population jumped by 7,660 - the largest increase in the nation for the one-year period.
The Code Blue Saratoga program was born from the tragic death of Nancy Pitts. The 54-year-old mother of two sought shelter on a Williams Street porch during a frigid December night in 2013. She was discovered by police the next morning. Within days of the homeless woman’s death, a cooperative partnership between then mayor-elect Joanne Yepsen, non-profit organizations, and members of the community was initiated and a plan set in motion to site an emergency shelter in the city.
“The proposed plan gives Code Blue a permanent home, as opposed to its current revolving status, which will be critical to ending homelessness in Saratoga Springs,” said Yepsen, who also publicly thanked Ed and Lisa Mitzen “for making our long-term goal a reality.”
Ed Mitzen, owner of the marketing agency Fingerpaint Marketing, grew his local health care ad agency Palio Communications from a five-person shop to a multimillion-dollar company with nearly 200 employees. In 2006, he sold the company and two years later founded Fingerpaint Marketing, eventually setting up shop on Broadway in a building formerly occupied by Borders Books and Music. In an interview with this reporter in 2015, Mitzen said philanthropy is a core value. “We’re blessed and fortunate to have good jobs and good careers and we feel a tremendous sense of pride to be able to give back to the community,” Mitzen said. “We’re always looking for ways we can help other people.” The donation includes costs for the building and amenities, such as appliances, although operating costs will come from other means. S.O.S. currently operates two other buildings on its property as well as a twice-a-week “drop-in” center which draws 20 to 22 people each day. Finocchi said having the Code Blue shelter on the same grounds will be beneficial. “Having Code Blue in close proximity to the case-managed shelters maximizes the opportunity for Shelters of Saratoga to provide the full continuum of homeless services to the individuals we serve,” Finocchi said. “This project will allow us to more easily connect homeless individuals with the support services they need, including case management, mental health counseling, and alcohol and drug rehabilitation. Our ultimate goal is to get them stable and housed.” Over the past four years, 36 individuals who have used Code Blue services have successfully transitioned into the Shelters of Saratoga case managed shelter.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — In a city known for its horses, it is still a sight to behold: standing about five-and-a-half feet tall, weighing 1,800 pounds and steadied atop four sturdy legs, they represent the city’s most unique police officers.
The Saratoga Springs Police Department initiated the use of a mounted patrol in 2000, following in a long tradition first documented when London’s Bow Street Police established its horse-mounted branch more than 250 years ago. This week, Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen announced one of the longest serving members of Saratoga Springs’ mounted division will be, well, stepping down.
“Jupiter is 23 years old and ready for retirement,” Mathiesen explained. The standard-bred gelding, originally named Jo Jo Geronimo, was donated to the police department in 2003, and has patrolled the city for more than a decade.
Jupiter became the city’s third equine officer, following the initial experiment in 2000 of a horse on loan from the state Park Police, and a 17-hand standard-bred gelding named Of Course I Can - later renamed Zeus- who served the department for three years, until his death as the result of West Nile virus. More recently, Jupiter was joined on the equine staff by the 1,800-pound black Percheron named King Tut. A healthy Standardbred horse will usually live to the age of about 25, and Jupiter’s golden years will be spent in the familiar surroundings of a farm just off Route 29 where the police horses are boarded.
“We have somebody who is going to care for him,” said Assistant City Police Chief John Catone. “He’ll retire and be able to play on the farm with all of his friends.”
Serendipitously, horse owner Charles “Chuck” Harrison on Jan. 30 penned a letter to the city police department, offering to donate his 11-year-old Standardbred, named Most Fun Yet, to the mounted division of the department. “I claimed him back in 2011 and he’s always been a pleasure to be around. I wanted to find a real good home for him,” Harrison said. “He’s a special horse. His personality makes him special and he’s as easygoing as they come. In the barn, we call him ‘Fat Boy,” Harrison laughed. “Now we call him ‘Officer Fat Boy.’
Most Fun Yet had been a frequent competitor at Saratoga Casino Hotel. He was foaled on Feb. 25, 2006 in Thornville, Ohio and sired by Full of Fun. The bay gelding had 223 starts overall - finishing in the money 87 times, winning 19 races outright and earning more than $190,000. “He actually raced until the end of the meet here in December,” said Most Fun Yet trainer Scott Mongeon. “He’s still viable as a race horse and could still race, but he is getting up there in age. Chuck thought it would be better off finding him a home, as long as it’s the right home.“
Most Fun Yet is being readied for training. The process is expected to take four to five weeks and if all goes well, he could be ready to serve by early May. The equine officers are employed in Saratoga Springs year-round and are a visual magnet for area children and out-of-town visitors alike. They patrol the racecourse in the summer, attend special citywide events, and bear witness to the occasional mayhem that can ensue downtown. “During fight calls, if there is a fight between two people, I can put a horse between them and that’s it - the fight’s over,” SSPD mounted patrol officer Glenn Barrett said in 2015.
“Most Fun Yet will be trained and become one of our police horses, and Most Fun Yet will probably have a lot of fun at four o’clock in the morning on Caroline Street,” Commissioner Mathiesen said with a laugh. The city’s newest equine officer, its fifth overall, is expected to undergo a name change prior to being put into service and plans are underway to host a contest among area schoolchildren to rename the horse.
SARATOGA SPRINGS - Four months into her new job, SPAC President Elizabeth Sobol says she is learning the Saratoga Performing Arts Center has a uniqueness all its own.
One factor is the location of the venue - nestled among 2,200 acres in the state park sitting on the cusp of a culturally vibrant city, she says. Another is the relationship forged with other performing arts organizations during the venue’s 50-year existence which continue to deliver everything from the whirring pirouette of the ballet dancer, to the delicate air strike of the conductor’s baton and the amplified clamor of an electric guitar.
“Having traveled all over the world, all over the United States, all over North America and having seen festivals of all kinds, I’m here to tell you there is nothing like this anywhere in the world,” says Sobol, a classically trained pianist. She relocated to Saratoga Springs from Miami Beach last fall and will mark her first season at SPAC this year.
“Thinking about the programming, I listened to community voices about what they wanted to see this summer.”
The spectrum of responses offered an array of varied opinions. “Part of my job has been listening to those voices and creating something cohesive that would speak to different aesthetic desires and visions,” Sobol says.
This year, the New York City Ballet will stage 18 ballets by six different choreographers during their residency, from July 5 to 15. The Philadelphia Orchestra season, from Aug. 2 to Aug. 19, will feature a balance between the new and the traditional and include one piece not performed at SPAC since the 1960s. And the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will return to the Spa Little Theater with six concerts, from Aug. 6 to Aug. 22. The schedule of performers and performance pieces will be publicly released Sunday.
“One thing I wanted to do was also create mini-festivals within a festival. It immerses you in a sound, a narrative and a concept. In dialogue with the Philadelphia Orchestra, we created a mini-Russian festival, a mini-American festival and a mini-French festival. So, if you look across all our programming – the New York City Ballet, the Chamber Music Society and the Philadelphia Orchestra - you’ll see some of the same themes arising.”
Sobol also noted a new series titled “SPAC on Stage” to target young, musical genre-crossing fans and featuring several hundred audience members seated onstage. “What we’re envisioning is an experience that is intimate and extremely visceral and will feature artists unique and different than anything else that has appeared on the SPAC stage."
With pop concert promoter Live Nation, Sobol says there is an ongoing dialogue to maintain the delicate balancing act of scheduling dates at the venue between the pop and classical worlds. A variety of pop concerts have already been announced: Dave Matthews (two solo shows in June, sans band), Train, Nickelback, Dead & Company, and classic rock bills such as Foreigner/Cheap Trick, Rod Stewart/Cyndi Lauper, and Chicago/Doobie Brothers, among them. Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival will be staged June 24-25 and will feature headliners Chaka Khan and the Gipsy Kings, returning artists Jean-Luc Ponty, and Dee Dee Bridgewater, a musical tribute to Ray Charles and more than one dozen other artists.
Responding to recent reports that President Donald Trump may severely cut or altogether eliminate cultural programs that receive federal funding such as the National Endowment for the Arts, Sobol says while concerned about potential cuts to NEA funding for the national well-being, it’s not something that will greatly affect SPAC. “We are being much more strategic about arts funding, but it’s not something that, if it goes away, it’s going to put us in a compromising position.”
*Note, an initial version of this story misstated the number of acres in the Saratoga Spa State Park. The correct number of acres is 2,200.