Utica, N.Y.— A year into the pandemic, and it’s hard to remember a time when The Stanley Theater’s nearly 3,000 seats were filled. Built in 1928 as a movie palace the theatre has endured its fair share of ups and downs in its almost 100-year history and has come close to shutting its doors for good many times but the community stepped up time and again to ensure the historic building remained open. It seemed nothing could shut The Stanley down until the pandemic hit.
“We really genuinely thought we’d be back open maybe in June or July,” Lisa Wilsey, The Executive Director of The Stanley Theater explained. “When all of a sudden it became incredibly daunting one day, I was sitting in the theater by myself and I think I was all alone here, and it dawned on me like a sense of almost a dread, ‘we’re not opening in July, now what do we do?’”
When Wilsey realized that they would not be opening in July she thought this might finally be the end for The Stanley, but just as she was about to give up, she credits the theater for inspiring her.
“I was here by myself, me and the ghost light and just like she does she kinda just zings you and says you’re not done yet,” Wilsey said. I remember I was sitting where one of my friends and his husband always sit, I was in their seats in the dark and I was looking down at the ghost light on the stage, and that’s when it just all overwhelmed me and all of a sudden I was like ah that was the aha day and I went down the hall to the office and picked up the phone, ‘I’m like it’s right there, there it is.'”
The thing that would save The Stanley, was right there the whole time, movies. Wilsey recalled a conversation she had with two men about how The Stanley was a Qualified Production Facility in the State of New York, which means whether it’s a Stanley production or an outside production company as long as certain budget qualifications are met The Stanley will receive certain tax credits for the production of film and tv and post-production projects.
“All of a sudden we decided to recalibrate the entire economic model of the theater as fast as we could and launch that type of the business,” Wilsey explained. “And although the tax credit has been here for several years that segway to that side of the business really hadn’t been explored and we very quickly decided to market the soundstage, we’re gonna go after ad agencies for commercials we’re gonna reach out to directors and producers and get this address on the map and under their attention.”
Since last September The Stanley has seen this part of their business take off gaining the attention of Hollywood, NYC, Netflix and more. and while Winsley assures me The Stanley will remain a performing arts theater she believes the benefits from this new venture will positively affect the entire city.
“It’s a really exciting time for the theater and it’s a piece of the revenue that I feel has been missing for this building,” Wilsey said. “And while we definitely are a performing arts theater and that’s our bread and butter piece and that in itself creates not just an economic accelerator for the City of Utica but the tourism.”
The love for The Stanley spans generations, and the theater has become a staple not just for the City of Utica, but the entire Mohawk Valley. so it’s no surprise that people were concerned about its future.
“It’s an emotional thing cause we’ve been coming here every day and working here working from home and we’re here and it’s empty and it’s not the same,” Wilsey explained. “We’re so ready and we’ve had a couple of small events here already. The theater is alive and seeing the faces on people like there’s just joy and that’s what theater is its a safe space where you can forget everything at the door, and as I was telling you before, you come in here and you don’t have problems anymore it’s just so beautiful you forget so I think it’s nice to see people come in here and just be happy.”