"What art offers is space - a certain breathing room for the spirit."
Walking into this interview, I expected to enter the Hollywood Theater of Au Sable Forks, NY — now known as the Ausable Theater — and speak with the new owners, learn about the history and future plans for the building, and be on my way with a lovely story about a lovely space. It was that and so much more. The theater part went precisely as planned, although it was much cooler than I anticipated — both in the physical space and the literal temperature as the building has been without heat for over two years. But the story of the owners, Norman Jabaut and Jason Andrew, far exceeded my expectations. Sure, they are two men who purchased a theater to bring the arts into their community. But I soon learned that this theater is part of a much larger story surrounding Jabaut and Andrew’s dedication for bringing art into their communities by any creative means necessary.
From home art galleries to parking lot ballets
There is a school of thought in the artistic community that states anything has the ability to be considered art. But Jabaut and Andrew take this notion one step further; they believe any space can showcase art. They have often repurposed spaces and turned them into art galleries and spaces for performances.
“At one time, we were in Rouses Point and there was no art museum really there,” said Jabaut. “We took all our furniture from our house, put it outside in a tent, and brought all the art inside. So our house turned into an art museum for that summer. And then we produced a dance that was in the ice skating rink — just built the stage right on the ice. In Brooklyn, our living room turned into an art gallery and was actually a very well-established art gallery. We did something called ‘Jay Clay’ in our backyard. We would put a big tent up and just showcase all this pottery. Because even though the venue isn’t there, you can create the venue. So when this space appeared, we were like, ‘Oh this is great. This is how we approach art.’”
Jabaut and Andrew took on their arguably most ambitious project this past summer, and it happened right at home. “In order to sort of launch the idea that we have the theater, we built a stage on pallets in our yard, in our field, in Jay,” said Andrew. He and Jabaut brought Emerge 125, a dance company with has a residencies in both Harlem, NY and Lake Placid and had them perform. “People brought their chairs and were picnicking,” added Andrew. “It was amazing.”
But my favorite story they shared happened at a Walmart in Plattsburgh, NY. Norte Maar, a collaborative arts organization co-founded by Andrew, ran a dance conservatory for young dancers from the region to learn from professional dancers. “We actually were involved with a ballet that was in the Walmart parking lot of Plattsburgh,” said Jabaut. “We were like, ‘What were some of the places that people will go every Saturday? Walmart!’" Directed and choreographed by Julia Gleich, the conservatory put on a memorable performance in this memorable location. "We did this classical ballet in tutus with the mix of people in front of their riding lawn mowers! A local bagpiper was playing, too, so that got people’s attention,” Jabaut added with a laugh.
Finding light in the darkness
Along with the rest of the world, Jabaut and Andrew found their lives coming to a halt with the outbreak of the Covid pandemic. With lockdowns causing the duo to not participate in their normal activities and travels, they discovered their bank account was inherently growing. “We were like, ‘Well, with a little bit of extra money, why don’t we invest it in our community?” Jabaut said. And invest they did.
They initially started looking at churches to purchase and repurpose into an art space, but then the Hollywood Theatre became available, a historic space already dedicated to art and filled with endless potential. In June 2021, this dynamic duo made the decision to purchase the building under a new name, The Ausable Theatre, named after the neighboring Ausable River. “This is brand new to us, and it's a much bigger building than we set out to buy, but here we are!” said Jabaut.
"Like a phoenix from the ashes..."
The building of the Ausable Theater has a long history. It first opened in 1937 with the screening of the film, Lost Horizon. The building was constructed by the Bridge Theatre Corporation, a neighboring company whose original wooden theater — the Bridge Theatre, named after the footbridge extending over the Ausable River — was destroyed by a fire (as was the bridge). The resulting Hollywood Theater was a single pour concrete building whose claim to fame was the fact that “it will never burn down.”
The auditorium theater is a vast, open space, but it was once divided by a wall into two separate theaters. While the divide allowed for two films to show, the screens were much smaller and the seating much more limited. Jabaut and Andrew decided to remove the wall and re-introduce the experience of viewing movies on the large screen as well as utilize the pre-existing shallow concrete stage once hidden behind the original screens of the theater.
The theater has held onto relics from the building’s previous life. As soon as patrons enter, a massive projector greets them in the foyer. This projector is one of the originals from the building. There are two such projectors; the other of its kind is located at the Strand Center for the Arts in Plattsburgh. This old projector was operated by having a flame consistently sparked to life within the machine itself. The spark for the flame was created by an individual consistently turning a crank, the light projecting the image of the film for the audience. The projector was inherited when Jabaut and Andrew purchased the building. “It’s one of the great artifacts in all the building,” said Andrew.
The structure of the building may be over ninety years old, but its structure soundly awaits the arrival of the vision of Jabaut and Andrew. They imagine repurposing the front lobby, currently a concession area complete with an old-school metal popcorn machine, into a coffee shop open from the morning through the afternoon. Additional visions for the theatre includes preserving older elements of the building — such as the original “Hollywood square” floor tile located at the entrance and the massive original film canisters hung on the walls, updating existing elements while keeping the original design in mind — including getting new wooden borders designed by a local artisan installed on the entrances, and turning a hallway into an art gallery. They dream of spacious seating where guests can enjoy events comfortably as well as have space to move around. And yes, they will be installing air conditioning. However, their first priority is to get heat installed in the building with, hopefully, help from the community. Jabaut and Andrew recently launched a Kickstarter fundraising campaign on the theater’s website to raise the $18,500 necessary for the heat installation project.
Bringing the arts home
Both Jabaut and Andrew are extremely invested in their community, especially with Jabaut growing up on the other side of Black Brook just a hop, skip, and a jump away from the theater. Jabaut said he has encountered a number of local artists who have shared about a project or a piece they were working on; now Au Sable Forks, NY will have a home theater in which those artists can be recognized, performed, showcased, and celebrated.
“Having this be a flexible space that is accessible is really key for us,” Andrew said. “When people think about the arts, and they think about the theater, and dance and ballet and whatever, the first thing they think about it is, ‘Well, how much is that ticket going to cost? How am I going to get my kids and my family involved?’ Ya know? So often, it’s just not accessible. But here, we’re really trying to aim for accessibility. And Norman wants this to be a real flex-space, where if people have an idea, we can make it happen. We want to re-envision what the theater was and can be,” Andrew added.
“We want to use the art series to ask, ‘What can we do to make your day a little better?’” Jabaut said. “We want to know what we can do to make your project happen? I think that it's good to be a role model in the arts community. You walk into this space and you just start thinking about ideas. You think about how important this kind of place can be for the community.”
While there is no official set date for re-opening, this new art space will surely wow any visitor fortunate enough to experience the magic of the Ausable Theater firsthand.
If you want to donate to the Ausable Theater’s campaign to raise money for a new heating system, visit their website today! And while you're waiting for the grand re-opening, make sure you check out other attractions in the Whiteface Region! From farms to outdoor adventures, something new and exciting is just a step away.