My family and I moved to the Adirondacks more than 20 years ago. We were attracted by the warmth and friendliness of the community and the inspiring civic service evident through special projects, scholarships and the desire of so many local citizens to promote activities for the betterment of youth and the community at large. This past year, my husband and I were honored to become members of the Saranac Lake Rotary Club, Charter No. 2323, which began on April 14, 1926.
Rotary as a service club has not been unknown to me. I grew up in a family where Dad was a member of a Rotary Club in Illinois, and later when I married, my husband joined Rotary of Incline Village, Nev. I know that Rotary International is a worldwide organization of more than 1.2 million people that provides humanitarian service and helps to build goodwill and peace in the world. I know that Rotary International has recently succeeded in exceeding the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's $200 million match in funding for polio eradication by raising more than $202.6 million. And without a doubt, I know that the individuals in the Rotary Club here in Saranac Lake are absolutely the most giving, serving and wonderful people to work with and have breakfast with every Tuesday morning!
But after all of that is said, what is it that Rotary does for our community, and what is really behind the Rotary Variety Show? Some of you already know, but for the rest of us, let me share a bit of the Saranac Lake Rotary history. When the club was chartered in 1926, prohibition was in full swing and Saranac Lake saw an incredible population and building boom. People were coming here to "take the cure." From Emerson to Einstein, Stevenson to Bartok, Saranac Lake grew with a varied collection of individuals. From the very start, the Saranac Lake Rotary Club kept abreast of local problems and needs, such as the need for a sewage treatment plant, trash incineration and covered garbage wagons - all needs for a community focused on health!
In 1928, two years after the inception of the club, the members decided to have their first fundraising project to support the activities of the community. The all-Rotarian cast (Rotary was men-only at this time) performed "Womanless Wedding," a folk drama that had been written in the early 1900s and was sweeping across the country. It was believed to have been a favorite of soldiers at war far from home. The show was so successful it was held over for two additional performances, it raised $4,000, and those dollars were disbursed to the community. Rotarian William Morris Jr. and his wife Emma played a significant role in providing vaudeville artists to perform at the Pontiac Theatre, and their U.S. traveling troupe carried the drop curtain nationwide that advertised Saranac Lake while passing the basket for donations for actors suffering from TB. The variety show became a yearly activity, later funded by the National Vaudeville Artists Association (NVA), which also sponsored the NVA Lodge, later known as Will Rogers Memorial Hospital and today Saranac Village at Will Rogers Independent Living. The Emma Morris Milk Fund began with Rotary taking the lead and provided milk for mid-morning snacks at the playground near the train depot during the summer (location of our wonderful Adirondack Carousel).
The variety show of 1929 was a blend of professional and local talent, featuring music, comedy and dancing. The early version of the Rotary Show Dancers was described as "staid business men in informal feminine attire" - and the tradition continues!
Over the years, Saranac Lake Rotary enjoyed many significant opportunities to share our community with noted dignitaries. In 1930, the club was honored with a visit from the Rotary founder, Mr. Paul Harris, and in 1934, Rotarian Dr. Francis B. Trudeau presented a model of the first sanatorium, "Little Red House," to President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House to kick off the Christmas Seal drive for tuberculosis.
Within the community of Saranac Lake, the club was instrumental in creating the Adirondack Council of Boy Scouts, sponsoring Troop 14 and encouraging the village to create a park in the area previously occupied by the Riverside Hotel (Riverside Park).
The war years saw many men enlisted, and the variety show was put on hold. But by November 1950, the club was busy planning its "first" Rotary Variety Show, to be presented in February 1951. Advertising called for any Rotary member who could sing, dance, clown or be dramatic; this was the beginning of the annual Rotary Show. The show opened with acts such as the "Mildew Sisters - Idew, Udew and Wedew" (aka Frank Widner, Phil Wolff and George French); "Chandu" Altman's Magical Mysteries (Irving Altman); "Operation Carefree, or Doctor's Holiday" with Dr. Donald Richter, Dr. Leonard Bristol, Dr. Walter Taylor, Dr. Richard Bellaire and Dr. Cordt Rose (we still have performing physicians in the community!) and other wonderful routines. The Rotary Dancers have continued their legacy that began in 1951, always keeping in theme with each year's Winter Carnival.
Through all of this "silliness" - after all, isn't celebrating in the middle of winter what our carnival is all about? - the Rotary Club of Saranac Lake has provided a fun variety show for locals and tourists alike, and celebrated the talent of our Rotarian men by donating 100 percent of the proceeds from the show to local projects and causes. Last year, that meant $9,986 that Rotary contributed to Saranac Lake - local dollars to local needs. The fun of the show and the drama of the dancers help support our community and it's all possible because of the Rotary spirit of service within our community.
I look forward to seeing you at the Winter Carnival Rotary Show - keeping the tradition alive!
Sandy Gothard lives in Onchiota.
(Editor's note: The author of this commentary has been corrected to Sandy Gothard, not Franny Preston.)