Saturday, April 21, 2012

Visiting Utica, New York Easter weekend

I wrote last week I would be reporting on my recent trip to Utica, New York, which had nothing to do with business and everything to do with pleasure. It was simply time for an escape, and a long Easter weekend seemed the right time to do it.

I occasionally avail myself of Groupon getaways and Living Social escapes if the location and/or price is right, and Living Social had both right recently when they offered a simply irresistible deal to the grand old Hotel Utica in of course, Utica New York.  I knew of the area but had never visited and it was only about four hours away, so we figured, why not?

Other than an hour and a quarter wait Good Friday afternoon to cross the bridge in Niagara Falls, the trip went well and we arrived at our destination about 6:30 pm with a lovely blue sky and fading afternoon sun brightening up the surrounding Mohawk Valley.  This is really a beautiful area, as you are right on the cusp of entering the famed Adirondack Mountains of Central New York State.  Viewing the valley from our hotel window as the sun went down, you had a panoramic view of just how beautiful the surrounding countryside is.

Utica is an interesting place.  The population is now down to about 60,000 from its peak years ago of about 100,000, and a drive Saturday morning around town told the story as to why the population has shrunk so much over the years.  There has simply been a mass exodus of much of the industrial sector here, as has been the case in many U.S. states, decimating their downtowns in the process.  The sad sight of so many industrial and retail establishments that once made up the thriving heart of the city was disappointing to be sure, but eventually we made our way up the main street, Genesee, and our hearts and fortunes were lifted considerably.

In spite of the decay of the central core, Utica has managed to reclaim a good part of the downtown through restoration projects that are simply breathtaking.  Old buildings with interesting facades thrive once again as chic apartment complexes, and new uses are found for old businesses long since closed.  There is one beautifully converted church just off Genesee that until recently was used by I believe a Turkish religious order that created a stunning new look for a traditional old church.  I hope this building finds a new life again, as it deserves a better fate than sitting idly by in the shadows of other restored buildings in the area.

Speaking of restoration projects, people in Utica are rightfully proud of their lovingly restored Stanley Theatre, which from the outside is akin to the restoration project carried out in downtown Brantford a number of years ago.  It was not open when we passed by Saturday afternoon, but it is still booking shows coming up and some of the events lined up would surely fill the house.

Further along Genesee you pass a plethora of wonderfully grand old homes, many lovingly restored and simply breathtaking to look at.  Sure there are other very sad "before" cases around, but they, too, will show a better face someday one would hope.  Driving through some of the adjoining old residential neighbourhoods indicated a real pride of ownership here and great care to show their homes in the best light possible.  Lots of little touches to distinguish these homes from others on the street without going overboard.

Back at the hotel afterwards, we consulted the area real estate listings in the local paper and were dumbfounded to find prices for these homes are - to our eyes, at least, ridiculously low.  Speaking with a member of the staff at the Hotel Utica the next day, the explanation I received is with the population shrinking, the prices are not likely to go up anytime soon, so these are not investment properties as we would know them here.  Rather, you find a gem of a home at a great price and if you are ready, retire to a desirable part of New York State.  We photographed one home were were quite taken by on Beverly Street that was larger than our present home here, with five bedrooms and a very interesting design, and it is presently on the market for about 100,000 less than a comparable home here in Niagara on the Canadian side.  Sigh.

The Hotel Utica has had a storied past, beginning with its construction and grand opening in 1912.  It fell on hard times more than once over the years and at one point was converted to a seniors complex, apparently, but around 2001 it was reopened as a truly grand hotel once again under new ownership, still looking wonderful and exuding a charm and character in its decor you just don't find in today's hotels.  Our suite for the stay, the Julian, was larger than my first house with every nice little touch you could imagine.  It was truly one of the nicer rooms we have stayed in just about anywhere.

Touring the hotel after dinner in the evening, you are impressed with the attention to detail both when it was first constructed and more recently with extensive renovations.  The service by and large was exceptional throughout the hotel, from the front desk to Cheryl who served us in the restaurant, appropriately called "1912".  Food was very good and well prepared, with one exception:  the tuna my partner ordered was not to her liking initially but they quickly remedied the situation and all was good by the end of the night.  Prices are very reasonable for the quality you get and the presentation is perfect.

So, the Living Social deal brought us down to Utica, but will we return?  You bet we will; in fact, we have friends living nearby and now we have a place to stay if we go down for a visit.  Sure, they didn't make much money on the deal offered through Living Social, but we made sure to spend our money when we got there at the hotel and out in the community so as to show our thanks for having made the deal possible.

Utica is a place with a lot of character and heart, and you just want to get to know it better.  The gentleman at the front desk perhaps said it best when we were checking out on the Sunday morning when he said "Utica starts with You!" Clever, and an indicator of the pride and spirit you still find in this nice little community nestled in the Mohawk Valley.

April 21st, 2012.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Lots to see, hear and do in Niagara this weekend

It is another busy weekend in the arts in Niagara, so I thought I would take a few moments this weekend and highlight a few of the more interesting things you can catch if you are so inclined.  From concerts to art shows, Niagara and beyond is where you want to be this weekend!

First and foremost, the Niagara Symphony performs the final Pops! concert this weekend, Saturday evening at 7:30 and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University.  Titled Last Night at the Proms:  1812 Edition, the concert features a lot of the typical British fare you come to expect, such as Elgar's Nimrod from his Enigma Variations, Rule Britannia! and of course, Jerusalem.  But also on the programme will be familiar 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky, with the Niagara Symphony teaming with the Niagara Youth Orchestra.  This is not a usual Last Night of the Proms  piece, of course, but given the 1812 Bicentennial celebrations currently underway, it seems rather appropriate.

I will be at both concerts this weekend, by the way, with lots of great musical selections available for purchase, including of course Last Night of the Proms CDs and DVDs so you can take a little bit of Britain home with you!  Tickets will be more plentiful for Saturday evening rather than Sunday afternoon, but for either you can call the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257 or just show up at the box office for either concert and grab a best available seat.

Earlier this week, Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects opened their final production of the season at the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre in downtown St. Catharines, Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Our Town, performed by the Young Company.  I had a chance to preview the play during rehearsals and from what I saw, this will be a play well worth catching.  The Young Company is made up of a lot of eager young actors ready to show what they can do, so you are in for a good show.  Our Town opened earlier this week and continues through to April 21st, with evening performances Wednesday to Saturday at 7:30 and matinees Thursday and Friday at 11 am and Sunday at 2 pm.

I still have to catch the show myself, so I might see you at one of those later performances!  For tickets, call the box office at 905-938-1222.  Best part of all?  Tickets are only $ 10 each, so you can't beat that deal.

Tonight at the Niagara Artists Centre on St. Paul Street, a fundraiser will be held for NAC called Small Feats.  This free event was introduced last year and people were lined up out the door, so you might want to get there early this time to make sure you get in.  There is a preview for NAC members at 7:30 and the doors open to the general public at 8.

What Small Feats is all about is quite ingenious:  150 pieces from 80 different local artists will hang from the NAC's gallery whitespace, with people able to buy a piece of art created by a local artist for only $ 200.  This is a great deal, and as my neighbour Sandy Middleton, herself one of the artists taking part says, it is a perfect price for newcomers.  The whole idea is to, as Middleton puts it, "take the snobbery out of art" and introduce art to a whole range of prospective buyers.

Last year a total of 75 pieces of art were sold during Small Feats, and raised $ 10,000 for NAC and $ 5,000 for the individual artists.  Many artists have more than one piece of art in the show, with some having as many as three each on display.  Go check it out, and remember, the event is free!

There you go, three events this weekend, none breaking the bank, and all providing great springtime entertainment.

Enjoy the weekend!

April 14th, 2012.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

And this week in arts

Regular readers of this space know I usually report/comment on arts-related issues locally and beyond Niagara's boundaries on a weekly basis.  They will also have noticed I didn't write over the holiday weekend, as I escaped with my far-better-half to Utica, New York for the long weekend.  I will be reporting on that interesting excursion next week, by the way.  Regular readers will also know I occasionally veer off the arts beat to offer my views and/or rants on any number of subjects.  So belatedly due to being away on the weekend, we're now entering the 'high-rant' district.

In my regular morning duties producing the morning show at CKTB RADIO in St. Catharines, I interact regularly with that knowledgeable individual Rod Mawhood, who by day anchors the morning newscasts at the station and under the cover of darkness at night hangs out at hockey arenas and other sports facilities both far and near.  He even regularly joins the ranks of ink-stained wretches who write about games upon their conclusion (the games, that is).  But most often, he is above the crowd literally and figuratively at the Gatorade Garden City Complex in downtown St. Catharines as the arena announcer for the mighty Niagara Ice Dogs, the local OHL team currently battling for hockey supremacy in junior hockey circles as they continue their second-round series against the Brampton Battalion.  Going into last night's game, the 'Dogs had the proverbial leg up on the Battalion 2 games to nothing in a best-of-seven series, with the all-important Game 3 at the quaintly-knicknamed "Jack" scheduled to begin at 7 last night.

Now, I know what you're thinking:  Saunders at a hockey game?  And what's more, actually writing about it in a semi-lucid fashion?  What gives?  Okay, let me explain.  Rod, who is an otherwise intelligent and level-headed person in the mornings, has been after me to end my seemingly self-imposed exile from "The Jack" and actually catch a game now that the playoffs are underway.  He has been labouring under the misconception I might actually enjoy the experience and perhaps even join the hockey fraternity on a more regular basis and cheer on our beloved Ice Dogs.

The thought of attending a hockey game, while not something I would normally consider doing even though I do believe I am a Canadian citizen, did in fact hold a certain curiosity factor for me after Rod approached me with an offer too irresistible to (hopefully) refuse.  He said if I showed up at the arena at 6 pm he would give me the royal tour, even including a corned-beef dinner in the 'exclusive' Media Room and watching the game from the cozy confines of the announcer's booth high above the action at the Garden City arena.

Hmmm, sounds almost interesting, I thought.  I mean, how bad can it be?  After all, I'm not being subjected to watching the Toronto Maple Leafs, which to my mind would be akin to flushing my money down the toilet given the sorry state of the franchise at the moment.  Incidentally, did the much-publicized apology by the Maple Leaf brain trust this week for not making the playoffs for seven years now strike you as it did me rather odd, given the fact they have conveniently avoided the previous forty-odd years of futility prior to that sad run?  But I digress...

So there I was, entering the Gatorade Garden City Complex promptly at 6 last evening, and being greeted by Rod who whisked me to the secretive Media Room for that corned beef on a bun dinner and introduce this hockey novice to the grizzled veterans already digging in for nightly sustenance.  Not long afterwards, we made the trek through the arena to the high-level closet where Rod spends many of his winter/spring evenings calling the games.  My first thought, climbing the ladder and avoiding the big pipe just above my head is, how does he do this every night?  I mean, Rod is a tall guy, and he isn't alone up here, as several others crowd into the tiny room for the game as well.  I just added to the crowd last night, trying to ask questions I hoped would not suggest I was a total imbecile when it comes to hockey.

My thoughts on the game?  Well, the first period, which saw the bad guys go up 2-0 on the 'Dogs, was not the best period of hockey to serve as my introduction to the game.  But the remaining two periods saw the Ice Dogs show what they are made of and down the visitors 6-3, taking a 3 games to zip lead in the series, with Game 4 in Brampton Thursday evening.  Even I know Brampton will have a hard time coming back from a 3 game deficit especially against a talented squad like the Ice Dogs.  But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

The arena, though old, has lots of character and, um, charm, shall we say.  The crowd is everything a team could possibly wish for:  passionate, loud and very supportive.  What more could you want?  Well, better washrooms for one thing, but that's another story for another day...

So would I go again?  Likely I will, during the next series whenever that begins.  And I think I will have to be there at some point anyways, since I noted last night the Ice Dogs were trailing the Battalion until Rod announced I was in the building, with my suitable-for-radio mug flashed on the video screen.  From then on, the 'Dogs were on fire and never looked back.  Coincidence?  Perhaps, but I like to think I was a good influence on the team.  I'm just saying...

Thanks, Rod, and the rest of the Ice Dogs fraternity for making me feel welcome...

Go Dogs, Go!

April 11th, 2012.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

News and notes around Niagara this week

I have a few things on my mind this weekend, all arts-related, and all of a local nature, so I gathered them all together in this week's column to clear the decks for a new month now underway and Easter just around the corner.

I attended a Media Day preview of Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects latest production on Friday afternoon, Thornton Wilder's Our Town, at the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre in downtown St. Catharines.  This is an opportunity for the working press to see how the production rehearsals are going and if desired, interview some of the cast members.  I always find this an enlightening experience, as you see a work in progress and get a sense of what is to come in a very short period of time.

Lyndesfarne's Young Company are presenting the work, directed by Artistic Director Kelly Daniels, and it opens April 11th with a preview performance on the 10, and it closes on the 21st.  The play chronicles the simple, rather pleasant lives of the Gibbs family, the Webb family and their neighbours in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire in the early years of the 20th century.

The one scene I saw, at the close of Act 1, shows an accomplished group of young actors ready to tackle a classic piece of theatre.  But I couldn't help but think, watching this young actors in period costume from over 100 years ago, how far they are removed from the people of that era thanks to technology today.  Think about it.  In the scene I saw, one of the characters refers to something he read in the "newspaper."  Remember them?  If you are of a certain age, of course you do!  But one wonders with today's youth if they will refer to the newspaper to get their news at all in the future.  Here they are, acting on stage, in roles that would not have a clue what to do with the internet, would never have a smart phone and have no idea what Wikipedia is.  The mind boggles.  This isn't that far back, folks, but it shows you how things have changed in the last couple of generations at least.

Anyway, Our Town looks promising and I am looking forward to reporting on the show following the opening later this month.  For tickets, call the box office at 905-938-1222 or go to

Friday evening, I attended a performance by the Juilliard String Quartet at the Centre for the Arts at Brock University, and despite the inclement weather I was glad to see a respectable-sized house for the performance.  Not full, mind you, but about two-thirds full, so that isn't bad.  The performance was simply amazing, as the sound these four musicians achieve is so smooth, refined and beautiful you can't help but admire the talent and dedication these four gentlemen bring to the stage.  I had the pleasure to interview cellist Joel Krosnick in January about the Quartet, in order to write an article in Centre Stage magazine, and  he indicated his time with the Quartet dates from 1974.  He is clearly one of the senior members of the group now, but even those who are relatively new are a huge part of what makes this group so special.

Opening with Haydn, continuing with a contemporary work by Martino and concluding with the massive Beethoven Quartet in B-Flat Major, Op. 130, the programme was well balanced and a pleasure to hear.  Even the Martino work, certainly edgier than the other two works, was still lyrical and an interesting listen.

One thing I would like to mention though, after attending the performance Friday night...audience members please take note:  it is not necessary to applaud after every movement of a work.  It is not expected by the musicians, and takes away from the performance as a whole.  Save your applause until the end, please, and everyone will enjoy the performance more, I can assure you.

Finally, I received word last week Artpark in Lewiston, New York, is planning an even better Summer Tuesday concert experience this season.  Responding to patron comments things were getting a tad overcrowded for the popular events in recent years, Artpark has upgraded the amphitheatre, as well as concession, washroom and sponsor areas this year.  They will also be fencing off the concert area for the Tuesday events, and charging a small admission charge to help control crowds.  This has been a real bone of contention with the locals the last few years; just too many people in too small a space, thereby disrupting the small-town atmosphere so many have come to enjoy while visiting both Lewiston and Artpark.

I look forward to seeing some of the changes myself this summer, and hopefully catching a performance or two.  Artpark has always presented great value for money, and being so close to the border it is always tempting to head over the river for a performance or two.  Maybe this year more will plan to do the same.

Have a great week and Happy Easter!

April 1st, 2012.