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Final performance draws crowd to Lake Ontario Playhouse

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SACKETS HARBOR — It was the last hurrah for the Lake Ontario Playhouse on Saturday, as it closed on what may be its last season of entertainment in the village.

The building’s owner since 1987, Michael R. Kinnie, sold the building earlier this summer to his brother, Andrew R. Kinnie, who is considering the space for technical training, but maybe some type of entertainment.

With the future unclear, crowds got what may have been the century-old building’s final show.

The final comedian for the show, Spanky, was visibly emotional before and during his set, telling the full-house audience to find the laughs when they can.

“It’s like losing an old friend,” he said Saturday before going on. “It’s always been a good room.”

Spanky, whose real name is Steven K. McFarlin, said he had performed 150 to 200 times at the playhouse, going back to when it started shows in 1989, when he was recruited to add a stop during his touring in Alexandria Bay. He came up from his home in Austin, Texas, for the final show.

One reason cited for the closure was a dip in interest in comedy shows nationwide, with sagging attendance linked to changing preferences in audiences.

“If you’re under 30, you look to your phone for entertainment,” Mr. McFarlin said.

Michael Kinnie’s 20-year-old son, Ian M., who has held a number of roles at the playhouse, including master of ceremonies, said there was something special about sharing a moment together.

“You get crammed in shoulder to shoulder, and you feel the connection with the rest of the room,” he said.

Since being built by the International Order of Odd Fellows in 1906, the building at 103 W. Main St. hosted an early USO special during World War II, and has seen life as a roller rink, auction house, dance hall, beauty pageant host and silent-movie theater.

Michael Kinnie took ownership of the building in 1987, and after two summers of jazz and theater, he attempted Wednesday comedy shows, which were a quick success.

“Hearing that laughter and the reaction from the audience, it made me feel this was something that was going to be big,” he said.

Over the years, a number of stars have made their way to the village, including Martin Lawrence, Lisa Lampanelli, Kevin James, Darrell Hammond and Jim Breuer. Michael Kinnie said “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon did his first paid comedy act at the playhouse, doing four sets over two days.

In an interview with “Vanity Fair,” Mr. Fallon said he could not remember the playhouse’s name, but said its owner told him that he had a future. He also recalled getting pumpkin pancakes across the street, at what was likely the Tin Pan Galley, and said the taste of pumpkin makes him sentimental about that first weekend as a paid performer.

Having a wide range of comedy acts come to the village, Mr. Kinnie said, showed off an art form with a style that built off its performers.

“It’s the most real art form there is,” he said. “It’s really more based in their own life than any other art form.”

Mr. Kinnie has flirted with sale a number of times, including in 1989, after he was charged with disorderly conduct following noise complaints during a performance by the band Wirlwind. Running the business was hard, he said, but the possibility of closure brought audiences that would revive it.

On Monday, the sale was real, as the final pieces of the playhouse’s operations were auctioned off.

“It was bittersweet to see everything go,” Mr. Kinnie said.

Despite the closing of the playhouse in its current form, there may be some hope for comedy in the village, or elsewhere in the region.

Before Saturday night’s show, Andrew Kinnie said he would be weighing his options this winter about what could come back, including possibly bringing back some kind of comedy or entertainment. Michael Kinnie said he talked Monday with a group interested in holding comedy shows, possibly in Watertown.

Michael Kinnie said he was optimistic something could stay, and perhaps he could help. People need laughter, he said.

“The more we can remember to laugh at ourselves and the people around us, the less hate and the less war and the more peace there will be,” he said.

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