Before TV and the internet, an evening’s entertainment often meant heading to a local theater for a movie or live performance. While many of these theaters are long gone, one has stood the test of time, offering diverse events for concertgoers, passionate foodies, and musical theatre lovers alike.
Stanley Center for the Arts—known to many as the Stanley theater—is a historical treasure that has provided entertainment to Central New York for more than 90 years. The iconic theater, located in the heart of Downtown Utica on Genesee Street, is a familiar sight for many residents and serves as a prominent tourist attraction for visitors amazed by its architectural beauty.
Built in the late 1920s, the 2,963-seat Stanley was designed by Thomas Lamb, one of the foremost 20th century designers of theaters and cinemas whose works included many other so-called “movie palaces” of the late silent and early sound film era. In fact, the Stanley is one of just a few such palaces left in the country today—a big feather in the cap for Utica, as many hundreds of similar grand theaters nationwide fell to the wrecking ball over the decades. Even more interesting, the Stanley is one of a handful of remaining Lamb-designed theaters in North America.
Since its September 10, 1928, opening night offering—a silent film titled “Ramona”—the Stanley has been the region’s premier entertainment showplace. Over time, it has evolved, hosting more diverse forms of entertainment to meet audiences’ changing tastes. Well-known entertainers of every era have played at the Stanley: the Dorsey brothers, Artie Shaw, Isaac Stern, Yitzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, James Taylor, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld—the list goes on. Since a $20 million expansion of its stage and support facilities in 2006, the venue is now home to more Broadway “tech shows” and productions, plus an array of concerts and community events that feature one of Utica’s most beloved assets: food. The Stanley has also broadened its services to accommodate corporate meetings and special events. As versatile as the entertainment industry has become, the theater has embraced it and more, providing the community with a little something for everyone.
“She [The Stanley] really is part of the fabric of Utica. I look at her and Saranac, and I’m not sure that there’s any other entities that make you think of ‘old Utica’ that are still around, at least for entertainment,” says Stanley Executive Director Lisa Wilsey. “We just want to see the theater open more, and for everyone to experience this beautiful landmark. We’re really trying to stretch her brand out a little bit, bringing talent to the area that doesn’t normally come here. It’s good for the city.”
In 2018, with support from The Community Foundation, the Stanley installed 12 new backstage “line sets”—the heart of a theater’s rigging system that enables a crew to move lights, scenery and more during production.
“The additional line sets will help us market the venue differently, we can attract more interesting talent to the building that needs those extra lines in order to perform,” Wilsey says. “Now, we have what they need to come here for their production.”
As a way to engage the youth population with art and entertainment, the Stanley has plans to expand its resources to offer educational programs. The first leg of the program will recruit college-age summer volunteers whose work will earn academic credit. The second component will begin with workshops where participants can develop their artistic and performing arts skills with tutorials on tasks such as playwriting, theatrical makeup, making a wig and much more. The hope is that these programs will grow over time into a “Stanley Performing Arts Academy” of sorts, engaging active participants every year.
Recently, the Stanley has been working to find new ways to enhance the overall theater experience for patrons. Adding food service on event nights is underway, with local vendors participating. Another enhancement will arrange staff escorts for event attendees with an impairment, from curbside arrival to their seat. In addition, the theater is refreshing its membership packages to include new assets and, as always, pulling in lots of new, diverse talent and shows.
“When we aren’t seeing a particular entertainment genre on the calendar, we go out of our way to find it,” says Wilsey. It’s a little bit of a dance, but when it clicks, it’s very exciting.”
As with any property of its age and size, the Stanley’s upkeep is a major priority. Since the 1970s, thanks to generous donors, The Community Foundation has granted the Stanley more than $890,000” much of which has been used for repairs and upgrades to the building itself.
“The support that we have received for the needs of the actual building continues to make it a safe and comfortable place to hold events,” said Wilsey. â€œIt has helped us preserve not only the historic value of the property but also its architectural stability. There’s that piece that you don’t see as a patron that The Community Foundation and its donors helps us to maintain.”
Like its legacy, the Stanley is here to stay. Its timeless charm and classical history, innate to Uticaâ€™s identity, are traits that never go out of style.
Through educational efforts, new and exciting events, and continual improvements, the Stanley is growing to entertain a whole new generation” all while preserving its foundational history. Surely a testament to Utica’s past and bright future, the Stanley will continue to come up with innovative ways to entertain the masses from Central New York and beyond. Make no mistake, Utica is growing – and the Stanley Center for the Arts is thriving right along with it.