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Theater takes center stage as tourist magnet

The creation of a new theatrical experience is exciting and fun. The earnest "let's put on a show" optimism of singers, dancers and backstage folks is infectious.

This summer and fall, visitors to this Finger Lakes community, about a two-hour drive from Buffalo, can witness the launch of a new theater festival that hopes to rival the success of Stratford and Shaw.

The Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival opens its inaugural season May 30 with "Kiss Me, Kate," the first of nine MTF productions. Three stages will host 250 performances; a fourth theater opens in 2013.

Cole Porter's Tony Award-winning Shakespeare adaptation runs through June 20 at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, 6877 East Lake Road (Route 38A). The 501-seat proscenium theater is in Emerson Park, overlooking a restored Victorian pavilion and a beautiful pier in Owasco Lake.

The Merry-Go-Round building once housed a carousel in a lakeside amusement park. Now the playhouse offers six full-scale musicals over a six-month season, attracting professional singers and dancers from all over the country.

The idea of expanding musical theater offerings in Auburn came from Ed Sayles, producing director of the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse and the artistic director of the Musical Theatre Festival.

Sayles said Auburn's will be the first musical theater festival in the nation, and he hopes it will boost the town's economy. One economic impact study predicts the festival will create more than 400 jobs and bring in $30 million annually.

This year the festival also presents Dolly Parton's "9 to 5: The Musical" (June 27-July 18), "My Fair Lady" (July 25-Aug. 15), "Cabaret" (Aug. 22-Sept. 8), "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" (Sept. 12-29) and "Nunsense" (Oct. 3-20).

The Main Stage at Auburn Public Theater, the festival's second venue, is located downtown at 108 Genesee St. The 199-seat theater is carved out of an old W.T. Grant's department store (which also houses a 70-seat movie theater, cabaret and lobby art gallery).

The Main Stage's Off-Broadway Series will present three regional premieres, beginning June 6-30 with "Altar Boyz," a spoof about MTV boy-band culture. "My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding" runs July 5-28, followed by "Fingers & Toes," a tap-dance spectacular Aug. 1-18.

The festival's third stage, Theater Mack at 203 Genesee St., is within walking distance of the Main Stage. The 125-seat performance space inhabits a converted 1850 carriage house and will focus on a concept called "The Pitch." Young playwrights and composers will "pitch" their new works to a live audience.

From June 14 to Aug. 18, two teams will have up to 45 minutes to present their newest ideas, characters, songs and dance numbers. Afterward, they will solicit comments and critical feedback from the audience. For a list of shows, check out

The $7.8 million Schwartz Family Performing Arts Center will break ground this spring at 1 State St. The 384-seat arts education center will be used for smaller shows and provide classroom and workshop space to Cayuga Community College students during the off-season.

The MTF box office is in Suite 304 at 17 William St. For prices and show times, call (800) 457-8897 or visit

>Historic sites

Known as the "Moses of Her People," Harriet Ross Tubman helped guide escaped slaves to freedom using the Underground Railroad. After the Civil War, Tubman settled in Auburn, where she lived in a home obtained through the help of her friend, William H. Seward.

The Harriet Tubman Home at 180 South St. and another small structure, which she ran as a home for aged blacks, are now part of a National Historic Landmark. The Rev. Paul G. Carter, who was a pastor in Lackawanna, serves as manager of the property.

Tubman, who died in 1913, is buried at Fort Hill Cemetery. Tours of her homestead are offered from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. For more info, see

As you leave the Tubman house, head north on South Street and check out the two-mile stretch of beautiful homes in the Historic District.

Seward made his home at 33 South St. for more than 50 years. He was the 12th governor of New York, a U.S. senator and secretary of state to Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson.

Seward had ties to Western New York, serving as an agent for the Holland Land Company from 1836 to 1838. Working in an office in Westfield, he helped investors purchase more than 3 million acres on the New York "frontier." But another real estate deal made his name a household word -- the $7.2 million purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. His detractors called the achievement "Seward's Folly."

A free self-guided cell phone tour of Seward's garden is available. For descriptions, call (315) 552-9205 and enter the number at each stop. For other tours, fees and hours, see

>Touch of Tiffany

The artistry of Louis Comfort Tiffany is on display at Willard Memorial Chapel, 17 Nelson St. ( The American designer was commissioned in 1892 to create 14 stained glass nave windows, a nine-paneled rose window, nine chandeliers and a three-panel window mural of "Christ Sustaining Peter on the Water."

The chapel offers free concerts at noon Wednesdays in July and August. (No concert on July 4.) There are also Sunday concerts, which cost $10 and begin at 2 p.m. June 3 with a guitar duo.

Tiffany also crafted a window in the Willard-Case Mansion, which is now the Cayuga Museum of History. The 1836 Greek Revival manse at 203 Genesee St. was the 1890s home of Georgiana and Caroline Willard. The sisters commissioned the chapel treasures in honor of their parents after Tiffany designed the window in their east wing.

Willard Case and his son, Theodore, inherited the house from cousin Caroline and lived there from 1916 to 1930. Theodore created the Case Research Lab in a backyard greenhouse, where he developed the first system of recording sound on film in 1923.

Case sold the mansion in 1936 for reportedly "$5 and a box of cigars" for the formation of the history museum. His lab was restored in 1994 and tells the story of "talking pictures." Admission is free to both the museum and lab.

For hours, exhibits and special events, visit

>Places to eat

Bambino's Bistro, 105 Genesee St. ( started out as a brick-oven pizzeria and grew into a white-table cloth restaurant with a wide assortment of Italian specialties.

Moro's Table, 1 East Genesee St. ( is an excellent downtown eatery. "Good food hinges on quality; fresh ingredients that are properly prepared and cooked" is the philosophy of chef Ed Moro. For more tasting options, diners can order half-portions of the entrees.

The Restaurant at Elderberry Pond is situated on a 100-acre organic farm. Owners, Louis and Merby Lego, and their son, executive chef Chris Lego, grow their own vegetables, fruits, herbs and cut flowers. It's truly a farm-to-table operation.

The Lego family also runs a store in their fieldstone smokehouse, which opens June 6 with jams, honey, bacon and take-out soups and salads. The farm is located at 3712 Center Street Road, but check for exact directions.

>Places to stay

The Springside Inn (www.springside.inn) was built in 1851 as a boarding school on a spot that provided drinking water from a natural spring. Sean and Beth Lattimore bought the property in 1999, restored the seven guest rooms and added a large deck overlooking the spring-fed pond. The dining rooms offer gastro pub cuisine, plus Saturday and Sunday brunches, in enclosed porches.

10 Fitch ( is a luxurious bed and breakfast operated in the former home of a doctor with 14 children. "Our B&B has been a 'Wheel of Fortune' prize," explained innkeeper Cheryl Barber, "and has been featured in the garden tour of homes." It has three guest suites, two staircases, five fireplaces, a library and a breakfast sunroom. One bedroom has a covered porch overlooking a koi pond, rolling gardens and a screened-in gazebo.

>Planning a visit

The Cayuga County Office of Tourism at 131 Genesee St. is filled with free maps, brochures and friendly advice. The office is staffed 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays in July and August. Call (800) 499-9615 or visit

To get to Auburn, take the Thruway to Exit 40 and go south on Route 34 or take Broadway Street (Route 20) 125 miles east to the "Broadway of the Finger Lakes."