Jack Henke Interview
(The History of Sylvan Beach)
It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that Jack Henke knows a thing or
two about Sylvan Beach.
He's the author of the book " Sylvan Beach, on The Lake Oneida, A
History" (North Country Books).
We talked to Jack Henke about Sylvan Beach with the focus on the entertainment
history of the place.
Q- Jack, how did you get interested in Sylvan Beach?
A- My work on Sylvan Beach and Oneida Lake began as an independent research
project while I was a senior at Hamilton College. From that paper, my investigations
mushroomed and I continue to research the lake's past today. It's been a
fun, rewarding journey.
Q- What year did we first see musical entertainment perform in Sylvan
beach restaurants and hotels?
A- Musical entertainment was first performed at Sylvan Beach in the 1880's,
the Beach's first full decade as a resort.
Q- Would the entertainment have included piano players, accordion players,
and one man bands?
A- Small bands were the rule then, but piano players could be found in
village hotels. The hurdy-gurdy man played in the midway, originally called
' Carnival Park'.
Q- What were some of the more popular places to see entertainment at Sylvan
A- During Sylvan Beach's initial heyday, the St. Charles Hotel, located
on the lake, at the intersection of Park Avenue and Sixteenth Avenue, held
balls for its patrons. This hotel was exceptional for Sylvan Beach at that
time. Owned by Louis Chesebrough of Vaseline fame, the hostelry catered
to a wealthier clientele than the average village hotel. Other places that
held dances were the Forest Home Hotel, the Windsor Hotel, the Eagle Hotel,
the Hotel LeLand, and the Ontario Hotel. Note that these events were advertised
as 'dances' as opposed to the St. Charles ‘balls’.
Q- Russell's Danceland. Was that "the" place to see the singers
and bands of the Big Band era? Name some of the performers who played
there. I know you mentioned Frank Sinatra and Desi Arnaz in your book.
A- Russell's was 'the' place for Big Bands in the 30's and 40's. In addition
to Sinatra, and Arnaz, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Harry James, and the
Dorsey Brothers all played there. For the latter group, the cars were backed
down Route 13 all the way to that road's intersection with Route 31.
Q- What would the admission have been to see Frank Sinatra?
A-I have no information as to the price of admission for Sinatra's act.
Russell's admission varied from fifty cents to $2.50.
Q- Mr. Russell died in 1937. So, whose idea was it to add a dance hall
onto the Russell Hotel?
A- I don't know for sure. Mrs. Russell was very active in the business
and was popular with the performers. Possibly they convinced her to expand.
Q - What year did Russell's close?
A - I don't know the exact date.
Q - Any idea of some of the more popular performers who played Sylvan
Beach during the 50's and 60's?
A - I don't have a lot of information here. John DePerno, owner of Captain
John's Restaurant was co-owner of the Forest Home during this time and could
easily fill you in on all the details.
Q - About Dom Bruno's Beach House you write, "Bruno's plans of establishing
a successful Las Vegas nightclub evaporated after two seasons as crowds
diminished below the break-even point. Bruno learned that the Utica
- Rome - Syracuse triangle from which most Beach patrons come would or could
not support his grand schemes." Why wouldn't people support Dom Bruno's
entertainment? Were ticket prices too high?
A - Bruno's ticket prices weren't too high, but Bruno built in Sylvan
Beach just prior to the 1980's boom in Oneida Lake real estate, when most
of the recent renovation in Sylvan Beach occurred. When Bruno opened, our
country was mired in inflation and just beginning its Reagan-era recovery.
I believe that these caused his demise. If he had ventured into the lake
economy in the late 1980's, I think he would have succeeded.
Q - Part of the film "Sterile Cuckoo" was
filmed at Sylvan Beach. Which part and how did they choose Sylvan Beach?
A - Scenes for "Sterile Cuckoo" were filmed on the Beach, in
Union Chapel, and in Oudin's Court, a cabin rental business that was located
next to the Chapel. John Nichols, who authored the book from which the film
was made, was a Hamilton College graduate and was doubtless familiar
with Sylvan Beach.
Q - What do you think Jack, will Sylvan Beach ever see a return of the
glory days of years past?
A- Yes, though in a different form. Around the turn of the century, Sylvan
Beach occupied a role as the most convenient resort for the Syracuse-Rome-Utica
axis. It offered a nice package for the average, middle-class family
and people flocked to it in droves. One hundred thousand tourists on a summer
day was not uncommon. The 'new' Sylvan Beach will never have that uniqueness.
We simply live in too mobile a society. Rather, this Sylvan Beach will function
nicely as a high quality, local resort for Central New York. It lost this
quality appeal in the 1960's and has now regained that luster. The village
has excellent swimming, fishing, jet-skiing, power boating, and restaurants
galore. Also, the Oneida Indian Nation will probably be dabbling in Oneida
Lake development. This certainly stimulates the imagination.
© Gary James All Rights Reserved