Darkness at Noon

The Rev. Arthur Breese Merriman came to Skaneateles from the shadows of the show houses. Raised in Syracuse, he was groomed for a life in business, prepping at the Black Hall School in Old Lyme, Connecticut, and graduating from Georgia Tech. In Syracuse, he thrived in the burgeoning motion picture industry, owning and managing four theaters: the Arcadia at South Salina and Colvin, the Franklin on South Ave., the Alcazar on South Townsend St., and the Regent Theatre on East Genesee St. (on the site of today’s Syracuse Stage).

Arcadia TheaterMerriman’s Arcadia Theatre, later the home of the Simmons School of Mortuary Science

In 1921, he was building a fifth theater, the Avon on Hawley Avenue, when he got “the call.” No more would he screen films such as “Under the Lash” with Gloria Swanson, “The Love Expert” with Constance Talmadge, or Cecile B. DeMille’s “Fool’s Paradise.” Art Merriman packed a bag, went to New York City and entered the General Theological Seminary.

Merriman

In April of 1924 he was ordained as an Episcopalian priest at St. Paul’s in Syracuse. In 1926, after two years at churches in Auburn and Clayton, he came to Skaneateles as rector of St. James’, where, still something of a showman, he organized a boys’ choir that would be the pride of St. James’ and Skaneateles.

Boy-Choir

However, the Rev. Merriman’s time here would be brief. In 1930 he resigned to study at the Union Seminary in New York City. On the side, he would serve as the rector of St. Elizabeth’s Chapel at Sterlington, near Tuxedo Park, on the Table Rock estate of Mrs. Juliet Pierpont Morgan Hamilton, daughter of J. Pierpont Morgan.

In October of 1931, his studies completed, the Rev. Merriman became rector of the Church of the Saviour, across the street from his boyhood home on James Street in Syracuse.

In 1943, the St. James’ boys’ choir, after a run of 15 years, was replaced by an adult choir. The new choir’s lone bass, fittingly, was named Claude Bottomley.

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For the postcard photo of the Arcadia Theatre I am indebted to Our Movie Houses: A History of Film & Cinematic Innovation in Central New York (2008) by Norman O. Keim and David Marc

Sand Dancers at Legg Hall

Gibbs HeadlineIn 1906 and ’08, The Gibbs Sisters of Syracuse, Marjorie and Lula, played Legg Hall for the benefit of the local firemen. The young girls were known for their buck and wing dancing, a minstrel style that included elements of clog dancing, high kicks, and steps such as the shuffle and slide. The sisters also performed a sand dance, more of a soft shoe, sprinkling sand on the floor to make turns and steps more fluid. The duo regularly received rave reviews:

“The Gibbs sisters – Margie and Lulu – tots about 9 or 10 years of age – simply captured the audience with their singing and dancing, their sand dance being particularly good.” — Acadian Recorder, Halifax, Nova Scotia, July 11, 1905

“The singing and buck and wing dancing by the Gibbs Sisters met the approval of those present, and they were obliged to respond to several encores.” – The Rome Daily Sentinel, December 1905

“The Gibbs Sisters, clever juvenile buck and wing dancers, made a pronounced hit with the audience, and received no end of applause and also bouquets of flowers. They sang sweetly and danced with spirit and precision.” – Syracuse Post-Standard, March 1906

At Legg Hall, they “gave universal satisfaction.”

Note: The Gibbs Sisters of Syracuse are not to be confused with Myrtle and Mattie Gibbs, who also toured in vaudeville, or Mary and Margaret Gibb, born in 1912, “America’s Siamese Twins,” who had a career in vaudeville and as a sideshow attraction.

The First Golden Age of Cinema

The earliest motion pictures were silent, short, and shown as a novelty during variety shows. But audiences loved them. If a photograph could actually move, the subject really didn’t matter. It was magic.

Legg Hall Old

In 1899, the Skaneateles Free Press first wrote of a “moving picture entertainment” in Legg Hall, to benefit the Fire Department, a fund-raiser that must have proved successful as it was repeated many times in the next few years.

In May of 1907, the “Skaneateles Amusement Company” announced the impending arrival of a moving picture machine, and promised an hour-long program of moving pictures. Illustrated songs – lantern slides of lyrics shown with a musical accompaniment – provided entertainment during reel changes.

The picture shows continued, but 1911 was not the best of years for them. In March, a show at Legg Hall was broken up by group of boys throwing sneezing powder into the audience. And then in August, sparks from wires carrying electricity to the projector fell into an open canister of nitrate film. Made with nitrocellulose, nitrate film burns hot, fast, and once ignited makes its own oxygen, so it will burn under water.

An instant after the sparks hit, a flare of flame shot out of the makeshift projection booth in the balcony, followed closely by Earl Day, the projectionist, already burnt on the face and hands. The flames shot through the roof and ignited a nearby tank of gasoline. The only thing moving faster than the fire was the audience dashing to two exits, one the main stairway and the other a window leading to a narrow fire escape down which women in full skirts did involuntary cartwheels.

The impresario, Daniel Bedford of Auburn, had planned to give moving picture shows all summer but was now presiding over an entirely different kind of spectacle. As flames lit the night sky, farmers raced into the village in wagons to help three fire companies (ironically, firemen still held the lease on Legg Hall) and other volunteers who had formed a bucket brigade from the lake. The Auburn-to-Syracuse street cars were halted in both directions by the fire hoses draped across Genesee Street. After two hours, the fire was out and the business block was saved. The second floor of Legg Hall was gutted, but insured. No one was killed.

Moving picture shows were again being held in Legg Hall in December of 1914, with a Christmas turkey giveaway enticing patrons, but just around the corner a new age of film was about to dawn in the village.

Odd Fellows Hall

Charles H. Huxford of Skaneateles Falls leased the Odd Fellows Temple on State Street and obtained, “by express” from New York City, a Power’s No. 6A film projector, “the finest motion picture machine built.” Beginning in January of 1915, he began screening episodes of “The Exploits of Elaine” on Thursday, Friday and/or Saturday evenings (working around those nights when there was a basketball game). His sisters, Nellie and Mabel, played the piano accompaniment.

The_Exploits_of_Elaine

The sequel to the legendary “Perils of Pauline,” also starring Pearl White, “The Exploits of Elaine” was a cliffhanger serial complete with a villain known as The Clutching Hand. The film thrilled audiences, grossed more than $1,000,000 and spawned two more sequels. In April of 1915, Huxford began screening a new serial at the Odd Fellows Temple, and also leased Legg Hall for a year, for “shows, dances and other amusements.”

On Decoration Day (Memorial Day) of 1915, Huxford began showing movies at Legg Hall. He hired Jessie Thurlow to play the piano and, in 1919, he married her, keeping the music in the family. Alzina Loveless recalled that Jessie’s accompaniment wasn’t always perfect:

“Sometimes she was so carried away by what she was seeing that she forgot to play and there was dead silence except for the whirr of the projector in the rear and the heavy breathing of the audience. Then with a crash of chords the music began again.”

In 1920, Huxford purchased Legg Hall and named his theater “The Huxford Theatre,” and so it would be for the next 20 years. Among the more faithful fans were Mr. & Mrs. Thomas Spearing, who in 1923 claimed to have seen every one of Huxford’s moving picture shows in the past seven years.

In September of 1929, Vitaphone and Movietone equipment were installed for sound pictures and Jessie no longer had to play the piano. In 1940, the Huxford Theater was sold to Reuben C. Canter, remodeled and reopened Christmas week as the Colonial Theatre, and so ended the first golden age of film in Skaneateles.

Gorton’s Minstrels

Gorton 1

In July of 1901, Gorton’s Minstrels appeared at Legg Hall. On the road since 1867, they had gone coast to coast 16 times, had been shipwrecked and nearly drowned off the coast of Prince Edward Island and parched in the blazing sun of the Yuma Desert. An 1898 account from a California newspaper describes the company of musicians and comedians who found their way to Skaneateles:

“The claim is made that now, and for very many years, this has been the only troupe giving old-time and genuine negro minstrel performances. It is represented that the ‘Gold Sextet’ is a feature of the troupe equaled by no other organization. It has comedians, specialists, solo vocalists and solo instrumentalists of a superior order. The troupe is composed of white men entirely, who, it is conceded, give negro minstrelsy better than colored men, though there are some excellent colored troupes in the country.”

Gorton 2

Henry, Elsie and Theda

Henry Ford

June of 1923 must have been an interesting month for the waitresses at the Krebs. One Sunday dinner guest was Henry Ford of Detroit, Michigan, who, having revolutionized American industry, was in the 1920s exploring a vegetarian diet. He often ate sandwiches stuffed with weeds from his yard, garnished with mustard; milkweed on soybean bread was a special favorite. At a Detroit hotel, he hosted a twelve-course meal where everything was made from carrots. There are reports, however, that he occasionally enjoyed steak, roasts and chicken, and I’m sure he got his fill at the Krebs.

Elsie

Also that month, Elsie Ferguson and Theda Bara dined together. Elsie Louise Ferguson was an American stage and film actress, said to be one of the most beautiful women to ever set foot on the American stage. She was frequently described as “aristocratic,” which was at once a compliment and at the same time code for “very hard to work with.” Whether she was snooty that day with the waitresses, I do not know.

theda-2

Her companion, Theda Bara, was an icon of the silent film era – “the Vamp,” “the woman with the hungry eyes” – a femme fatale but said to be a real sweetheart when off the set. She loved the Finger Lakes, describing them as “a child’s fairyland.” After a 1919 film shoot in Ithaca, she spent two months motoring through the region, saying, “The scenic zone of the Finger Lakes in beauty and allure stands supreme.” At the height of her fame, she made $4,000 a week; let us hope that it was Theda who sprang for the tip that day in Skaneateles.

Theda She Devil 1918

Theda Bara in The She-Devil (1918) fends off an actor who is not Fred Krebs.

The Priest with a Purple Heart

Stuart

The Rev. Donald Cameron Stuart served as rector of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Skaneateles from 1922 to 1926. Born 1893 in Syracuse, he graduated from Hobart College with the class of 1915, and completed his studies at the General Theological Seminary in New York City. The United States declared war on Germany in April of 1917, and Stuart enlisted in the Army in June, serving as a Private, a Sergeant and then as a Second Lieutenant in the 108th Infantry, 27th Division, in France.

27th Division

“The Glorious 27th” by Fortunino Matania (1881-1963)

Stuart saw action at Yypres-Lys, and was wounded during the final Somme Offensive, at the battle around the Le Selle River, on October 17, 1918 — three days before his regiment was relieved, and less than a month before the Armistice. He received the Purple Heart, and was discharged in July of 1919. He took “a refresher course” in theology at Cambridge University in England, and was ordained as an Episcopal priest.

In 1922, shortly after Donald began his service as rector at St. James’ in Skaneateles, he was commissioned as a First Lieutenant and became the chaplain of the 108th Infantry, now a reserve unit. He left St. James’ in 1926 to serve at St. George’s Protestant Episcopal Church in Utica, N.Y., but continued as an Army chaplain.

In spite of his war experiences, or perhaps because of them, he had a unique perspective. In a sermon he preached at St. George’s in 1933, he said, “Many of His followers act as though they must get rid of all fun and pleasure if they are to be good. But how can we expect to bring others into the church if we picture Christianity as a religion of gloom and sadness? It is the devil who tries to make us see only the sorrow and the suffering of life… Of course Christians will not find joy and happiness by avoiding labor and suffering on this earth. The Christian must always be ready to endure suffering for God and for men. But through our toil and suffering, we Christians know there is still a joy in living.”

In 1940, on the eve of World War II, the Rev. Stuart’s unit was called to active duty; he was promoted to Lt. Col. and became the chaplain of the 27th Division. Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he sailed to Hawaii to serve in his second World War. He returned to the U.S. in July of 1943 as post chaplain at the Ashford General Hospital in White Sulphur Springs, Virginia, before being assigned to Washington, D.C., as chaplain at Walter Reed General Hospital, where he ended his military career.

After retirement, he moved to Florida, where he died in 1977.