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 Beach?
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.

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