The community remembers the beloved pillar of the late Proctors, who worked and tinkered with pure love


SCHENECTADY – Although now considered a jewel in the crown, Proctors was in disrepair by the 1970s.

As the rags operation came to life after a period of fallow, one man perhaps more than any other worked behind the scenes to restore the place to its former glory, one nail straightened and a padded seat at a time.

Edward J. Burke, Proctors maintenance and jack of all trades, died on June 7. He was 93 years old.

From replacing locks and chairs to navigating underground canals and unblocking toilets, Burke has done it all during his 40-year tenure.

“You could see the sky through the roof at Proctors,” said Dennis Madden, the then executive director who hired Burke in 1979. “It was scary.”

Burke recalled once wrapping the organ in plastic to prevent damage from rainwater.

The Brooklyn-born Burke moved to Scotland via Nyack after serving as an American sailor during World War II and the Korean conflict.

Burke worked for 30 years as a toll collector for the state’s Thruway Authority before moving on to his second gig, which took place when he met Madden, whose mother lived next door to Burke on the street Catherine in Nova Scotia.

When Madden, now 75, took over the theater, it had a virtually non-existent staff, Madden enlisting his own mother to type letters, while the city managed to fight over a guard over federal dollars.

Burke, still the handyman (he even built his own concrete mixer), offered his services.

“Ed continued to be the go-to guy until we hired more staff,” Madden said. “If something needed to be done, we would call Ed and he would find a way to do it. “

Burke himself rang in a 2013 video segment filmed by Proctors, lifting the curtain on mundane but compelling details to keep the aging site going.

Efforts have been made to keep the boilers operational. He talked about using an unruly vacuum cleaner to suck dirt from carpets before the 1979 appearance of magician Harry Blackstone, Jr., who served as a back-to-room gig.

He placed blocks of ice in the vents in a proto-form of air conditioning; stripped down all the seats in the theater for stuffing, talked about subterranean streams, clogged toilets, chiseling cement spotlights, springs securing seats, and the painstaking art of restoring elaborate facades.

And then there were the crooks.

Burke was on duty when a tractor-trailer pulled up on Smith Street.

“We’re here to pick up the chairs,” the guy told him.

Burke and his team loaded the seats, the equivalent of 20 or 25 rows on either side of the theater, into the truck, signed the documents, and that’s it.

Another crew arrived shortly after.

“We came to get the chairs,” the other guy told him.

“What chairs? Burke asked.

The mystery remains unsolved.

Burke wove a tapestry of stories in the segment filmed with the late Karen B. Johnson, Schenectady’s revered politician who died in 2019.

This narration, her family recalls, was one of her most endearing qualities, including “Monkey Story” as it is known in family lore.

While the details differ slightly each time, here are the basics: A soldier brought a monkey aboard a U.S. Navy ship, it escaped, and chaos ensued as the top officers attempted to capture it.

And then there was the moment a guy pulled up at the toll booth with a German Shepherd poking his head through the back window. Burke told the guy to put it back. The driver replied that he was not biting.

“You know it, I know it, but the dog doesn’t know it,” said Burke, according to his granddaughter, Lillian Pierce.

“There are so many little anecdotes and stories,” Pierce said. “I could go on and on.”

Madden also remembered Burke regaling him with stories from his native Brooklyn.

“For a child at Scotia, it was new,” Madden said.

Chris Burke recalled that his father painted “Peanuts” cartoons on the toll at Exit 25.

“The big pumpkin is on its way,” read an illustration, filled with a Snoopy lying in his kennel.

Burke also painted a dressing room at Proctors all white for Mariah Carey. And decades ago, he recalls, when many actors traveling the Vaudeville circuit were illiterate, they could recognize the names of their cities painted on the doors:

Yonkers, Syracuse, Buffalo, Utica, Rochester, Albany.

“The actors of the time, many of them could not read or write, but they knew the letters that are in Syracuse and Buffalo and that is how they could tell which dressing room they were in”, Burke said.

The handyman worked through it all, even scavenging nails from the basement and straightening them to keep costs down.

“It’s all going to be sorted out,” Burke recalled, having told him the management. “When we have a few good shows, we can do some things. “

“The man was wonderful,” said Proctors CEO Philip Morris. “Everyone knew Eddie. He was sweet and wonderful. I often appointed a young person (for him) as a mentor, and he was great with the kids. I miss him terribly.

Meanwhile, Burke was a volunteer firefighter, loved to travel – especially to Ireland to connect with his roots – adoring his nine grandchildren (who called him “Daddy”) and being a devoted husband to his 62-year-old wife, Norma Lillian Burke, who died before him.

Eventually, Burke switched to a part-time job at Proctors, but still went through his daily checklist.

Burke, who moved to Niskayuna in the mid-2000s, worked in the theater until the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic last spring.

“It was just a motivation for him to get up in the morning and fix things up and help them out,” Pierce said. “He just lived this amazing life and people should know his story because they don’t do it like that anymore.”

Johnson joked with Burke in the 2013 music video.

“You get the theme here that everyone was volunteering and trying to do things very cost effectively,” Johnson said.

Burke replied, “There are things I cannot fix.”

And he was a workaholic until the end.

Pierce recalled one of his grandfather’s favorite jokes: “When I read the newspaper in the morning, if my name isn’t in the obituaries or among the lottery winners, then I guess I have to go to work today. ‘hui. ”

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