SCHENECTADY Nobody ever had to light a fire under Philip Morris. Not in his 25 years working in arts administration in Chautauqua County, or here in Schenectady during his 10 years as Proctors CEO.
“Working with Philip is like having a tiger by the tail,” said Tony Mashuta, chairman of the board at Proctors. “He’s a visionary who’s always thinking outside the box. He’s a sponge who never stops taking things in, and never stops coming up with new ideas.”
The Theatre Guild at Proctors will honor Morris and commemorate his first decade at the helm here in Schenectady with a “Proctors Un-Gala, A Celebration of Creativity,” at 6 p.m. on Saturday. A cocktail hour will kick things off in Key Hall, and then dinner and entertainment will be offered on the main stage at 7 p.m.
Morris began his gig at Proctors on March 4, 2002, after spending 25 years in western New York as executive director of the Arts Council of Chautauqua County. Other than spending a few months during the summer of 1977 working with his uncle’s roofing business after graduating from Hamilton College, it was Morris’s first job. Two and a half decades later, at the age of 47, Morris accepted job No. 2 when he came to Schenectady and began working at Proctors.
“I was stunned at how bad downtown looked, but I could also tell there were enough board members that were really teed up to do something,” said Morris, remembering his first visit to the city and his initial interview with the board of directors. “There was a sense that the city had hit rock bottom and these people were going to do something about it. They weren’t sure what, but I had this real sense that I could be on the ground floor and really do something to help.”
For Morris, the goal wasn’t just to put people in seats inside a beautiful and historic theater. The idea was to help revitalize Schenectady’s downtown area,
“If you couldn’t imagine this changing,” said Morris, referring to the reinvigorated streetscape just outside the Apostrophe cafe that is now part of the Proctors complex, “then you couldn’t imagine all of this succeeding. Proctors was all by its lonesome here downtown, and people don’t want to come to an island. We had to be a part of something bigger if we were going to succeed the way we really wanted to.”
When Morris showed up in 2002, Proctors was alive and well, but certainly not the regionwide attraction it is today. It was known as Proctor’s Theatre then, named after Frederick Proctor, the “Dean of Vaudeville,” who built the place in 1926. Along with plenty of Vaudeville entertainers, Proctor’s Theatre hosted the first public demonstration of television in 1930, and became primarily a movie house throughout the 1950s and 60s. It was closed for a while and in danger of being demolished before a group of concerned citizens named ACT (Arts Center and Theatre of Schenectady) saved it from the wrecking ball and reopened the facility in 1979. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, and throughout the next two decades served the community as an entertainment venue with varying degrees of success. Then Morris came along and things really started happening.
In 2004, a $30million renovation project was begun, and by 2007, a number of improvements had taken place, most notably the mainstage was now big enough to host Broadway’s most majestic musicals, such as “Phantom of the Opera” and “The Lion King.” Also, a number of new performance spaces were created, including the GE Theatre and the Fenimore Gallery, along with an expanded lobby area and a restaurant.
Lionel Barthold, a member of the board who served on the search committee that interviewed and hired Morris in 2002, remembers that the vision he and his fellow board members had for Proctors wasn’t nearly on the same grand scale as Morris’s.
“I can remember that Philip was different, and he seemed awfully ambitious,” said Barthold, who owned and operated Power Technologies in Schenectady until 1999. “He had a lot of ideas that went beyond what we were focusing on. We were worried about operating a theater, and he saw a much bigger picture than that.”
They had taken notice, however, of what Morris had accomplished in Chautaugua County. A native of New Haven, Conn., Morris was a history major at Hamilton who thought about becoming a lawyer. He actually drove onto the campus at Villanova University in Philadelphia having been accepted to the law school there before suddenly changing his mind.
“I just realized, ‘Oh no, I don’t want to do this,’ so I got back in the car and drove to Utica,” remembered Morris. “I spent that summer painting houses and working with my uncle’s roofing business, and then I thought, maybe there is work in the arts administration field. So, I started looking, I found a job in Chautauquay County and off I went.”
INVOLVED IN THE ARTS
Morris had been very involved in the arts at Hamilton College, serving in a variety of functions. He wasn’t performing himself, but he was organizing trips for the school’s choir, band and jazz ensemble, and was also working in the studio lab — where he made sure all the taping equipment was functional — and the lending library where he was in charge of dispensing vinyl albums to his fellow students. That kind of experience, according to Morris, made him more than qualified to serve as executive director of a fledgling arts group.
“I was qualified for it because it was a nothing job,” said Morris, laughing at the recollection. “I can remember I had a very nice lady working part-time for me, and we were done with the newsletter, and we had this small performance series at Fredonia College all set. I said to her, ‘What do we do now? The newsletter is out, the concerts are set with their brochures. Is this it?’ I guess I was probably underqualified in a lot of ways. It was just that the job hadn’t been flushed out yet.”
Morris quickly began making things happen. As director of the council, he oversaw the development of 15 downtown properties in Jamestown that would benefit the arts community, including the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center, which opened in 1996.
“We did a lot of stuff,” he said. “We renovated buildings, we found housing for artists and their galleries. It was all good, but none of it seemed to spark change. I don’t want to say it was depressing, but I felt like the work wasn’t doing what I thought it ought to do.”
So when the opportunity came to move to Schenectady and face another challenge, Morris didn’t say no. He was hired after a second job interview with the Proctors’ board at Glen Sanders Mansion.
“There was one of the board members who wasn’t used to being disagreed with,” remembered Barthold. “He was one of those corporate leader types, and Philip disagreed with him on something and actually convinced him that he was right. We were walking out of Glen Sanders and the guy said to me, ‘He’s your man.’ I had already decided myself, and we were right. Philip turned out to be a great leader.”
Betty Barlyn, a former board member and now a member of the Theatre Guild at Proctors, said Morris made a significant first impression on her.
“I wasn’t on the search committee, but I escorted him out of the building after his first interview,” remembered Barlyn. “That was my first encounter with Philip, and my first impression was that he stood out from all the rest. I didn’t have the opportunity to get to know him that first time, but you could tell he just seemed special, bigger than life.”
Her second interaction with Morris left her convinced he was the man for the job.
“He had all these creative ideas, and he really thought outside the box,” she said. “He was a visionary, and what was so nice was that he always treated everyone with respect. What he’s done for this place and this town is amazing.”
Mashuta, a Schenectady native and president of Cool Insuring Agency Inc., in Latham and Queensbury, said that the connection between the city’s downtown revitalization and Proctors’ success can’t be overstated.
“Proctors is the little engine that could, and I think our success allows for the success of downtown, and the whole area,” said Mashuta. “People come to downtown from the entire region, and I can’t imagine one other person making the kind of difference that Philip has. In order for us to be an incubator, we had to have live entertainment a couple of hundred nights a year to bring people into our restaurants and bars. He’s done that. He’s a bundle of energy, and no project is too big, no idea is too big for him.”
Morris, who with his wife Kathleen recently relocated from the Stockade neighborhood to a rural area of Rotterdam, said he loves just about every aspect of his job as Proctors’ CEO, even the schmoozing.
“All of what I do is schmoozing,” said Morris, laughing. “The personnel part is schmoozing, buying the Broadway shows is schmoozing. Getting people in here is schmoozing. Those of us in the arts industry have a huge job to do. There’s so much entertainment available, and you can get it on your iPhone now, or you can watch television or play a record. That’s the easy way. But if you’re doing something live, you want people in the seats and that’s much harder. We have to remind people that by showing up they’re helping to support a creative life, and the social contact is a big part of it. We have to remind people that there’s real value to that.”
As pleased as he’s been with the response to the big blockbuster musicals he’s brought to town, what really makes Morris happy is just seeing the place used to its utmost capacity.
“I have multiple most memorable nights, and my wife knows this when I come home on a Friday night with a big smile on my face,” said Morris, whose father immigrated from Greece. “They’ll have been something going on at Key Hall, something going on at the Fenimore Gallery, the mainstage, Robb Alley. That’s when I get ecstatic. On the Friday night of “Beauty and the Beast,” we had all these little girls showing up dressed as Cinderella with stars on sticks. We had a high school prom going on in Key Hall, and we had a women’s bodybuilding contest going on in the GE Theatre. Watching them all go to the women’s room was amazing. We had these little girls in pink, we had their 18-year-old cohorts dressed to the nines with their bosoms pushed up, and we had these women basically wearing nothing, their bodies bronzed and shiny, all standing in line together to get to the rest room. It was wonderful. Just what community should be.”
When Morris isn’t at Proctors overseeing the night’s program, he’s often out supporting other arts venues.
“I would say on average that four to five nights a week my butt is in a theater seat somewhere,” said Morris, who has three grown children. “We never watch TV. If there’s a good series on, then my wife and I will get the DVD and watch it when we can. I go out. I go to Capital Rep, I go to Curtain Call. I haven’t been to every arts organization in our region, but I’ve been to most of them. I’m also a Tony voter, so I’m going to New York quite a bit to watch shows. I don’t leave the office at 5 on Friday and then show up Monday morning. I don’t spend my weekends off on a boat somewhere. My job just doesn’t allow it.”