If you've been lucky enough to visit Lake Placid, New York, you've probably passed the Palace Theater, a fixture on Main Street since 1926. "The Pride of the Great North Woods," as it used to be advertised, The Palace has hosted everything from vaudeville to organ recitals and silent film festivals. Now with four screens showing first-run films, the theater draws residents and visitors who are either exhausted from outdoor activities or seeking a respite from Adirondack storms.
Newcomers and old hands alike find a warm, friendly theater graced with period details and modern enhancements. Since 1961, the Palace has been owned by Reg Clark, who runs the theater with his wife Barbara and their children. "It was a wedding present," Reg told me, standing in the lobby between shows. "We got married in 1960 and I bought the theater in 1961. I went to her and said, 'Barbara, I just bought the Palace Theater.' Almost had a divorce on my hands."
"He said, 'How much money do you have? I need to borrow some,'" Barbara adds. "And he said right off this would be a family project. We have five children, and they all have helped here. Right now one daughter does all the advertising, the other works in the box office, one son gives out passes, and the other does a lot of the little things that always need doing."
In 1926, Lake Placid business leaders decided that the town needed a first-run theater to attract visitors. (An earlier theater, The Happy Hour, closed soon after the Palace opened.) They spared no expense, outfitting the venue with a stage and proscenium, and installing a Robert Morton pipe organ that still attracts aficionados.
"When we bought the theater, the people who had it were going to enlarge the proscenium arch," Reg recalls. "They were on ladders drilling out the wall when they came to this cable that had hundreds of colored wires inside. They asked the contractor, 'What do you do with this cable?' It was from the pipe organ."
Barbara picks up the story: "Each wire was the equivalent of a note, and a note had to match the wire or the sound wouldn't pass through. We had a young man at the school who taught music, and he and our manager at that time did the matching."
The Clarks have made other changes to the theater. "In 1980 we doubled, or twinned it, we put a wall between the downstairs and upstairs," Reg explained. "In 1983 we tripled it by putting a wall that split the upstairs theater. And in 1985, we took the stage out and built a new theater there."
But the Clarks made sure to hold onto the details that made the Palace so distinctive when it opened. A large fireplace sits behind the concession stand, and the lobby boasts hand-stenciled designs that evoke patterns from the 1920s.
Films are screened twice a night year-round, with weekend matinees in the winter and daily matinees in the summer. Although the Clarks recently raised admission prices for the first time in ten years, tickets are a bargain by anyone's standards: $7 for adults at night, and $5 for children. Plus, candy and popcorn are a steal. "We could charge more," Barbara admits, "but we like to see more people."
Barbara believes that the Palace serves as a sort of anchor for Main Street. Reg agrees: "When I used to work here, the Palace was the center of everything in town, and it still is." The Clarks have a working relationship with the Lake Placid Film Festival and the nearby Lake Placid Center for the Arts. The Palace occasionally screens silent films, with Jeff Barker coming up from New York City to accompany on the organ. In cooperation with the Lions Club, the theater shows The Polar Express free for local children every December, bringing Santa Claus in for the occasion.
In recognition of the Palace's importance to Lake Placid, TAUNY—Traditional Arts in Upstate New York—added the theater to its Register of Very Special Places in July, 2010.
Summer is a wonderful time to visit Lake Placid, and every night crowds gather under the Palace marquee. But even on cold, wintry nights, lines can stretch down the block. Entering the theater is like stepping back into a time before tablets, cable, before television itself hijacked our nights.
The theater's biggest recent hit was Titanic, which played for fifteen weeks when it opened. But the Clarks are too busy to actually attend their screenings. "We have a date night once in a while," Barbara admitted. "I don't watch too many," Reg said. "If I'm here and it's quiet I'll go in and watch some of the show."
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