Rocky, the teensy, round-faced owl who took a wild ride in a giant pine to Rockefeller Center in 2020, only to be swooped up and nursed back to health at Ravensbeard Wildlife Center, has inspired multiple children’s books; The Christmas Owl, by Rocky’s rehabber Ellen Kalish and Gideon Sterer, was a New York Times bestseller; Kalish appeared on the “Today” show to tell Rocky’s story, and Ron Howard has purchased the film rights.
Rockefeller Center, for its share of the fun, has introduced the notion that Rocky’s upstate owl gal pal Roxy has, unlike her saw-whet bestie, opted to make Manhattan her for-feather home. The center’s new ambassador is an owl in a cheery blue scarf, about eight feet tall, purported to hail from Saugerties.
The Saugerties chamber has understandably declared Rocky the Owl this year’s community street art icon. Word is that there were diplomatic niceties involved. “It got a little sketchy, because the town of Cairo does owls, so it had to be very specifically Rocky,” says a source.
Aside from the obvious fact that it would be downright un-Saugertesian to poach Cairo’s owls, Saugerties isn’t short of inspiring critters. The lighthouse keeper has a companion in Laysan the Saugerties Harbor Seal, a tagged rescue originally hailing from Maine who ventured up the Hudson in 2019 and has gotten comfy at the mouth of the Esopus.
More than a few other folks have made that journey in recent months, albeit largely by land. Along with most Hudson Valley towns, Saugerties has experienced a major influx of emigres. “Especially since COVID, artists from all over the tristate area have been re-evaluating their priorities, looking for a life with more space in it, and Saugerties is meeting that need,” says Robert Langdon, founder of Emerge Gallery. “The creative community is really building and there’s a lot happening—11 Jane Street [Art Center], JJ Newberry, the Lamb Center—plus, pop-up exhibits are all over the place. We’ve formed an arts commission, and the town and village are all in. ”
Emerge is hosting, through March 13, “Exit 20” an exhibit that features the work of 37 Saugerties artists. “Some are longtimers and others are new, and there’s a wide range of diverse media——painting, sculpture, fiber art. I think a lot of artists used pandemic isolation to look within, to reevaluate, and, of course, they process it through art. What they’ve been producing is fascinating.”
Langdon says irrepressible artistic energy has helped carry the town through the pandemic. “We’re working with ShoutOut Saugerties a lot—they do wonderful programs. They organized all kinds of outdoor events to bring the community together—movies, theater, talks, walks.”
On March 26, ShoutOut will host internationally renowned violinist Lara St. John at the Reformed Church. And from June 3-July 10, Shout Out, Emerge, and the Lamb Center will join forces to display lesser-known work by Harvey Fite, the builder of the iconic six-acre bluestone sculpture that is Opus 40. Prepared in collaboration with the Fite family, the exhibit will feature a timeline of Fite’s life and work, including a bust of contralto Marian Anderson and Fite’s only known painting, African American Playing Guitar.
Opus 40’s managing nonprofit, which had a kerfuffle with Fite’s descendants that made it all the way to the New York Times before being resolved, isn’t directly involved—but they’ve got loads of their own business to mind, thanks. With grant funds totaling $600,000 in hand, the group’s retained a five-star team of experts to repair and preserve the sculpture, while planning a season of fun: Friday Community Nights, Saturday afternoon jazz, Stockade Saturday Cabarets, and two weekends of outdoor films in collaboration with Upstate Films, a close neighbor now that the Rhinebeck-based organization has purchased the historic Orpheum Theater on Main Street.
“We’ve been around for 50 years and never before owned our own theater, so the Orpheum coming up for sale was a great opportunity for us,” says Paul Sturtz, executive codirector of Upstate Films. “We’re in love with Saugerties; it’s such a great, close-knit village and town. We want to be showing seven days a week in the foreseeable future, and we’d love for it to be an alternative town hall, a place where all kinds of things can happen”
Saugerties is bursting at the seams with theater news this year. Arm-of-the-Sea, the experimental hybrid performance group founded here back in 1982, is creating the Tidewater Center, envisioned as a locus for performing arts, citizen science, and a “waterworks playground” tied to the history of local mills. “Last summer, we capped the contaminated industrial site with clean fill and opened to the public with outdoor performances of our 2021 Esopus Creek Puppet Suite,” reports managing director Patrick Wadden. “This summer, in addition to our regular touring, we’re planning weekly performances and community events at the Tidewater. We also have secured funding to begin construction of several new facilities.”
Turning on the TV
Upriver Studios, a sustainability-forward 100,000-square-foot production space co-founded by actor/director Mary Stuart Masterson and producers Beth Davenport and Diane Wheeler-Nicholson in a repurposed industrial space, has been fully booked since opening in May 2021, becoming a major economic engine.
Masterson first moved to the Hudson Valley in 2006, founding Stockade Works with Davenport in 2016 to train locals for off-screen production jobs, and she says the production facility is “the next step in making local work—television shows need large-scale soundstage facilities, and we created Upriver to meet that need and bring television productions (and their jobs and massive budgets) into our towns. It is so exciting to see local businesses benefitting from our first client, ‘Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin,’ being based at our stages. We are so lucky to be in Saugerties. We’ve found it to be an incredible place to launch and run a business, with great collaboration and support from local government at all levels, and great support from the community,” she says. “This is not Hollywood-on-Hudson, this is the Hudson Valley—a place with its own character, culture, and talent, and with a growing creative industry.” The facility recently received a $500,000 boost from Empire State Development to facilitate carbon-neutral, sustainable upgrades.
“Transformative, incredible,” are words that Saugerties Town Supervisor Fred Costello uses to describe Upriver Studios. “I can’t find enough good things to say about what they’re doing—it’s unique and special, and the economic activity that it has spun off is more than noticeable. I don’t go through a week without a conversation about the impact—food, services, hardware, lumber. It’s a few hundred jobs, and we haven’t had an employer of that magnitude in a long time.”
Town officials hope to further fertilize the creative/entrepreneurial boom by rezoning the Kings Highway district to allow boutique craft manufacturing.Also on the 2022 agenda: an in-depth environmental review of the latest proposal for the 800-acre Winston Farm, which would include multi- and single-family housing, concert amphitheater, boutique hotel resort, technology park, and commercial and cabins and campgrounds. It’s already a controversial topic, with many local residents deeply concerned about the development’s environmental impact.
“People here are very close-knit,” says Langdon. “The pandemic has only enhanced that, and right now there are lots of opportunities. Saugerties has the knack for growing and reinventing while holding onto its integrity, and what it’s about.”
“I would caution anyone from developing strong opinions about the beginning of a fairly lengthy journey,” says Costello, noting that the long form SEQRA process will address the same issues opponents are raising. “In the end, there will be people disappointed, but forming strong opinions now is a bit premature. It’s the process that forms the product. These gentlemen [Tony Montano, John Mullen, and Randy Richers] are local; they’ve seen and experienced other fails and are sensitive to what the community may or may not accept, and right now we’re just beginning to develop the science that will guide us all.”
Bob Siracusano grew up in Saugerties from age 12 and purchased Sawyer Motors in 1990; building the type of family business in which the whole community’s part of the family—Siracusano is the type of guy who renovates a 1967 Good Humor truck to hand out free ice cream at community events, many of which he helps organize. Since the creation of the Sawyer Automotive Foundation in 2014, over $750,000 has gone to local charities.
“Of course people love to come here; we offer so much,” he says. “There are 20 different places to eat. Cantine Field is one of the premier sports facilities in new York State. We have the [Sawyer Motors] car show, the Garlic Festival, the Mum Festival, Fourth of July fireworks, free sunset concerts, the food truck festival, a great farmers’ market, First Fridays, Holiday in the Village, street art, and all kinds of studios and galleries, fabulous horse shows every summer. COVID has changed the world and people leaving the city and landing here are falling in love with this town.”
Siracusano is currently nominated to represent New York State as Time magazine’s car dealer of the year, and will be competing in the nationals at Las Vegas on March 10. “I couldn’t be happier already,” he says. “I love what I do, all of it—and Saugerties is on track for a great summer. Hey, we’ve even got Rocky the Owl.”