Syracuse Post Standard
February 17, 2012 at 1:40 PM
Linda Schoenfeld smiles widely, huddled closely with the important men in her life in front of the stage at the Nelson Odeon.
Husband Jeff stands to her left. It’s a show night, and he’s as happy as his wife.
Behind them stand three young men of the next generation, all taking a moment from their many pre-concert duties to squeeze into the picture.
Son Max, he came down from his job as a chef in Ketchikan, Alaska, three months ago to manage the daily operations of the theater. He’s been filming and taking photos for the Odeon's website.
Son Hunter, he drove up from his home in Jersey City to watch the performance of Amy Speace, a singer, guitarist and songwriter he booked after they met at a house party in Brooklyn. He’ll hawk red 50-50 tickets up and down the aisle until showtime.
Colin Nekritz comfortably joins the Schoenfeld family portrait, waved in by Linda. He’s the man who helped convince them to book live music into this quaint, 170-year-old building in Nelson, five miles east of Cazenovia and one turn north at the only intersection in town. He’ll do the stage announcing.
“These are my three boys,” Linda proudly declares, pointing behind her as a couple dozen music lovers applaud.
Go back 16 months, and this bustling night of music in late March wasn’t a Schoenfeld family dream. Or a notion, even. What it was back then: A for-sale sign in front of the old Nelson Grange building, which Mary DuSell owned for an antiques store.
Jeff and Linda Schoenfeld have lived in the house two doors north of the old grange building for 30 years. To make a living, they commute about 25 miles to Syracuse from this town in rural Madison County. Jeff is president and a founder of Ansun Graphics, on Deere Road. Linda is a lab technician at the VA Medical Center.
Yet the Schoenfeld’s roots run deep in the country. The three Schoenfeld children — Hunter, 28; Rachel, 25 (who still lives in Alaska); and Max, 23 — all graduated from Cazenovia High School. Max studied cooking at Morrisville College.
“The place next door was vacant,” Jeff recalls of winter 2009. “The place across the street was vacant. I understood this place was being considered to be sold as warehouse space. I said, that can’t happen.”
The family bought the old grange before they knew what they were going to do with it.
The six-room building holds a small lobby; the theater, which seats 99; a sitting room and dining room that hosts customers before shows and during intermission; a kitchen, from which baked goods, Freedom of Espresso coffee and bags of fresh popcorn are sold; and a bathroom.
It’s not a money thing, Jeff allows. Nobody working at the Nelson Odeon draws a salary. The Schoenfelds’ goal is to break even.
“It’s a family thing,” says Max. “We had a love of music our whole lives.”
All three Schoenfeld children took piano lessons from age 5 until they graduated from high school. Rachel became a music major at SUNY Oswego, and she still plays piano as well as cello and bass.
During a trip home from Alaska, where she works at a hotel and keeps up with her music, Rachel played the cello on stage in the building. The pure sound in the theater enriched Nekritz’s argument that the family should use the building as a performance space and book music into the theater.
“It was incredible,” recalls Nekritz, 42, who’s booked bands to play at the Oswego Music Hall, and has worked at Atlantic Records in New York City and the Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle. “It was obvious with the wood floors and walls, the sound in this room was fantastic.”
The bones of the building were good, too, says Max, who nevertheless finds countless projects to keep him busy. You can still smell the paint of the pale yellow walls in the theater and the lacquer from the ticket booth he built in the lobby. As Hunter pitches the 50-50 raffle, he says half of the kitty goes to the winner and the other half toward “a new roof for the Odeon.” (An odeon is a building used by the ancient Greeks and Romans as a performance space.)
The stage was built 70 years ago by a vaudeville fanatic. Max and Nekritz found the original houselights under the stage floor.
The 99 chairs in the theater can be removed. In fact, Max says, if he senses a crowd is in a dancing mood, he’ll push them to the back of the room during a show.
Nekritz helps hire the bands for the Nelson, along with Hunter, who’s a history teacher in the Bronx.
One ironclad rule: Either Nekritz, Hunter, Linda, Jeff, Max, or Max’s girlfriend he brought with him from Alaska, Jomarie Alba, must see the act perform live before they’re hired to play at the Odeon.
“Of course it’s exciting,” Hunter says. “Without a doubt, it will work. With my brother, myself and my father, a whole family, immersed in it, it’s a big deal. My father has always been somebody who quietly makes things happen.”
Soon after the family portrait is taken in front of the stage, Linda dashes back to their house up the road. She’s set to serve the dinner she cooked for the musicians, a meal that includes Gianelli sausage and salt potatoes for Central New York flavor. After the show, she’ll welcome the musicians back into the house for the night. She’s turned the home into a bed-and-breakfast as part of the project.
Jeff, 55, and Linda, 54, try to catch the show.
During Speace’s set, they steal a quick minute to sit side-by-side behind the merchandise table, in the very back of the theater, watching the stage and savoring the scene.
It’s a community thing, too.
On the wall in the lobby is a push-pinned invitation to form car pools. “Members of our community that do not drive or may have problems finding transport to the Odeon would very much appreciate help making their way to future shows,” it reads.
Jeff says he’s paid attention to the crowds that have attended since the first concert, a songwriters circle in May 2010. He keeps his ears open.
“What I see is 50 to 60 percent local. Nelson. Cazenovia. Chittenango. Erieville. Morrisville,” Jeff says. “They’ll be talking to each other at intermission. It’s a great place to meet new people.”
Tom and Cheryl Davis, of Cazenovia, think so much of the Odeon that they volunteer to help.
Tom Davis dons an orange vest and help direct patrons to parking spots; Cheryl Davis stands in the lobby box office and sells tickets.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” says Cheryl, who feels comfortable counting ticket receipts; she’s the bursar at Le Moyne College. “It’s such a good thing.” Tom feels at home with his task, too. For years, he was known as Traffic Tom on TK99’s morning show.
Jeff is struck by the benevolence of the community.
In the dining room, he points to a sturdy table and chairs that sit amid Nelson Grange memorabilia, such as member group photos that hang on the walls.
“They were donated to us,” he says of the brown wood furniture. “Somebody brought them and said, you need these.”
The street runs both ways.
Churches and community groups are welcome to use the Nelson Odeon. The Cazenovia Methodist Church has plans to put on a play on the stage.
Kathy Morgan, of Syracuse, is a first-timer at this concert in late March.
“I like it,” she says during intermission. “I like the setup. I like the stage area, and the chairs. It sounds good.”
Morgan, a fan of acoustic and roots music, says she was at a concert by Treasa Levasseur at the Oswego Music Hall and heard the musician talk about the Nelson Odeon. “She bragged about it,” Morgan says. “We had to come.”
Artists at home
It’s an artists’ thing, too.
Speace and the second singer-songwriter for the night, Jill Andrews of Knoxville, Tenn., both comment about the theater before they play.
“I’m going to gush like a little girl,” says Speace, who lives in Nashville. “I feel like Judy Garland in Oz tonight. What a wonderful place you have.”
She said her ride to the Odeon from a concert in New Haven, Conn., the night before was memorable.
“All these turns in the road,” Speace says. “I started thinking about ‘Children of the Corn’ and zombies, and I got a little nervous. I’m glad you all seem nice and all.”
Andrews looked over her shoulder at the sign that pays homage to the building’s history, the one that reads “Nelson Grange.”
“I’ve played in a couple of grange halls in my life,” she says. “And this is a nice one.”