The Landmark, Palace and Westcott theaters all served Syracuse for decades as single-screen movie houses. But with the a television in every house and multiplexes in every mall, each of these remaining Salt City icons has had to find a new way to survive.
Two years ago this month, Sam Levey and Dan Mastronardi reopened the doors of the former Westcott Cinema as the Westcott Theater, trading in the reels and auditorium seating for a 700-capacity live music hall with a full bar.
“I always talked about doing a music venue, and I always talked about doing it here,” said Levey. A Westcott resident “a long time ago,” he used to see films at what was then the Cinema. “For a long time if you wanted to see an art film or an indie film, this is where you came.”
But when the building ownership changed hands, Levey and Mastronardi saw an opportunity to give the theater new life and the neighborhood live music. During renovations, they discovered the original stage — used for vaudevillian acts when the theater was built in 1909 — and used it as foundation for the current stage, Levey said. They left alone as much of the original architecture and design as possible, but had to ditch the seats and the screen.
Now, The Westcott brings in 180 to 190 live acts a year, Levey said.
“In this neighborhood, these are the people that are supporting music, and we’re right in their backyard,” Levey said. “People know now that if it’s at the Westcott, it has to be good.”
Production manager Alex Balstra said the reception of the community was evidence of the Westcott’s success.
“To have it go so well and get such a great response from the community is really satisfying,” Balstra said.
The venue emphasizes national and international indie acts, and with the second year of the Big Break Contest has consistently supported local musicians.
Levey said the contest, essentially a three-round, four-month battle of the bands, began as a way to get exposure for local bands that may not otherwise play to a room of 500 people. But its since provided the Westcott with a way of scouting local talent, and bringing them back to open for larger acts.
One of the biggest surprises so far? How well the place cleaned up for its first wedding, held last weekend.
“That actually amazed me,” Balstra laughed.
The gem of Eastwood
The Palace Theatre, at 2384 James St., has managed to survive doing what it knows best.
Family-owned since it was built in 1922, the gem of Eastwood still shows first-run movies; titles and show times are still displayed on the marquis that lights up James Street whenever there’s a showing. Annual traditions like the late-October showing of “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and the Shaun Luu Horror Fest have found a home at the Palace.
But the Palace, too, has found a way to reach a new audience. The 700-seat theater has presented comedy performances, award ceremonies, magicians and more. And with major renovations in 2004, under the direction of the Palace’s current owner Michael Heagerty, the Palace now plays host to a variety of functions from business meetings to rehearsal dinners and holiday parties. The facility boasts two banquet rooms and its own catering department.
The heart of Downtown
Executive Director Denise Fresina DiRienzo was right to say that it was “apples and oranges” to compare Salina Street’s Landmark Theatre with its smaller counterparts the Palace and Westcott.
The Landmark features 2,900 seats and a lobby so grand and elegant that it’s a popular wedding reception site. But regardless of its intricate architecture and storied past, the Landmark still faced closure from 1975 to 1979. The theater bounced back with the help of a loyal volunteer base and the Syracuse Area Landmark Theatre agency, but the stage and auditorium are once again closed. This time, though, its for a $16 million renovation to expand the stage and stage house, transforming the Landmark from a movie house to a performing arts center, said DiRienzo.
“Our niche is the performing arts,” said. “It’s the only way we’re able to stay viable with that many seats.”
Through the renovation, though, the Landmark will be available for private lobby functions and will remain an active part of the community with holiday events and fundraisers.
For more information about the Westcott, visit thewestcotttheater.com, or find them on Facebook, Myspace, Twitter and Flickr, (house photographer Matthew Balch also has great photos of past shows at matthewbalch.com).
Find The Palace Theatre online at palaceonjames.com; movie times and other event information is available on the site.
Events, rental information and more for the Landmark is on the web, landmarktheatre.org.