Maybe It’s in the Water: Jonathan Newell and the Strand Theatre
Jonathan Newell clearly remembers the day he first walked into the town clerk’s office in Hudson Falls.
“I happened to go in and say to the town clerk, ‘I hear there used to be a theater in town.’
“She said, ‘Well, you’re standing in it.’
“’What do you mean I’m standing in it?’”
“She opened up the door I thought was a coat room, and it was the steps up to the balcony of this old theater. I felt like I had this Alice in Wonderland Through The Looking Glass moment. You gotta be kidding me. And as I’m walking up the stairs I could hear “I Am The Walrus” playing in my head.”
Little did Newell know, but he’d just opened the door to becoming the Bill Graham of the Adirondack foothills. His resume already read like that of a 21st century Renaissance man: classical pianist, composer, rock guitarist, bassist, singer and Impresario. His resume states “Since 1988 he has divided his time between teaching, performing, composing and hosting concerts. He performs over 100 times a year throughout the Northeastern United States in concert halls, colleges, clubs, coffee houses, corporate events, festivals and private gatherings.”
But Executive/Artistic Director promoter of The Strand, a 400-seat theater in a sleepy North Country village?
“I had no idea it was coming. No idea! When we started this in 2010, I swear to God, I said to our attorney, I said, ‘I’m only in it for six months. Then, I’m out.’ I gotta get back to my regular life. Well, it was a pretty satisfying experience, and then people just kept coming. So, there was no way of getting out once it started.”
By the start of the pandemic, The Strand had already sold out shows by artists who instantly fell in love with this little theater that could: Albert Lee, Martin Barre, and The Heavenly Echoes.
“When Martin Barre played here, people were coming off the street, handing him gifts saying thank you,” said Newell. “Here’s a bottle of wine. Here are some flowers. Here are some chocolates. Here’s some stuff I made. Here’s some artwork for you. They were really touched by it I think, and it was genuine. I think it’s great just because that thing that was needed, but you didn’t know until it came up.”
Maybe it’s in the water.
“(Hudson Falls) is probably like any of these other little towns all over the northeast, but to me, there always is a creative spirit in the section of the river. I mean I grew up in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, and my relatives have been there since the mid-1700s. I know where their grave markers are, and I’ve shown my kids where they are. So, there’s something deep seated here. The music department in Hudson Halls was always strong. There were three strong classical music teachers, and then I grew up in the ’60s. So, watching all that happening as a young child, and I think being really connected to music, a feeling really safe where I was that we were really removed from a lot of stuff.
So, when I was a sophomore in college, I had Gillian Barr Syndrome which is cancer. Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Actually, I was told I had Lou Gehrig’s Disease and had 18 months to live. Here I was studying to be a concert pianist and I couldn’t lift my arms at all. I had to literally toss my weight to swing one arm and get the other one. And then I could play Bach. I couldn’t play key stuff like Rachmaninoff[. I could play more intimate stuff. So, thinking for months I didn’t have a whole lot of time left. What would I do with that time? And the thought was to go home and be with family, connect with that spirituality, stuff like that. And then after about eight months or so, I was told it was Gillian Barr Syndrome which is a virus that could go away at any time, or it could get worse.
“I looked at it through a different lens I guess, and just saw this peaceful little village. It felt like Greenwich Village a little bit. It wasn’t trying to be a city. It was just a bunch of people hanging out. And there was a biker club on the outskirts of town. There was a bunch of farmers all over, riding their horses through town, and yet it’s not that far off the Northway.
“So, that process led me back to this area, settle here and create a musical life, whatever that would turn out to be because I was really intrigued by the area, the history, the beauty of it. So, those things really led me back, and then eventually I met my wife and I wanted to raise my family. And working as a musician.
“I started having kids. My first son who is 16 now was diagnosed with cancer when he was five months old, and a really aggressive type of cancer in 2005. We ended up having to do his treatment in New York, lived in New York for a while and committed to New York for seven years. He was sort of raised at Slone Kettering for the first couple of years of his life. And during that time, we were living on and off at the Ronald McDonald House, East 73rd, and I was pursuing graduate study as a way to pass time and get connected to the city ’cause in case we had to move there and live there.
“So, then after six years of treatment, he was declared in remission. Then we thought, ‘Ok, our lives are going to be up north.’ I’m ready to do the concert hall. So, I started thinking about it in 2010. It was really a way to celebrate my family being able to get through this.
“At the same time, I’d been teaching this older student who was a very wealthy guy, and we got to be friends, and I said, ‘I’ve got this old beat-up concert grand. Someday I’ll get it fixed up.’ He said, ‘Well, what would you do if you got it fixed up?’ I said, ‘I’d put it in a public place in Hudson Falls and start doing concerts.’ So, he took out his check book and wrote a check for $15,000. ‘I dare you to get it done. I want you to follow this spirit and get it done.’
“I can’t give you his name. He’s still anonymous to the whole organization as a matter of act. And the conversations we had were to me mystical conversations, and it was all in the line of what was happening, and this was such a process of six years of my son not knowing from day to day if he would survive.
“(The Strand) was built as a theater in 1923, and the town government bought it and turned it into the town hall in 1969. It was slated for demolition in 1961, and the private owner, people who own a metal fabrication shop, bought it to try and save it. They tried to keep it open for a few years, and they closed it up and the town stepped in and bought it.”
Upcoming shows at The Strand include: WailOn – A Tribute to Waylon Jennings and Outlaw Country Music on Friday, May 8th; a Mother’s Day Classical music show on with piano, viola, vocal on Sunday with Jonathan Newell, piano, Tania Halko-Susi-viola, Gisella Montanez-Case – soprano performing works by Scarlatti, Grieg, Glinka, Hindemith, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky; Comedy Night – Jay LaFarr and Friends on May 14; The New York Dance Project on May 15th; blues and funk band The Switch on May 21st; Funky Dave’s Fashion Disaster on May 23rd; Rock of Ages – Def Leppard Tribute on May 28th; The Levin Brothers on June 17. Already booked for 2022 is a return date with Martin Barre and an October concert with blues-rocker Walter Trout.
“I hope my son gets it from what he’s witnessing through all these people he’s been around and stuff,” says Newell. “It’s not about meeting this famous guy. It’s that you are lucky to be in it. You’re part of the stream. It’s exciting all the time, and sometimes it’s a downer but good times are going come back because good parties come around.”