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The bitter dispute behind an Auburn theater's name change

Theater Mack is now the Cayuga Museum Carriage House Theater. But behind the venue's quiet name change is a bitter dispute between the Auburn museum and what was a major benefactor.

The theater opened there in 2012 under its old name to honor that benefactor, Peter "Mack" Maciulewicz, as well as his family.

Like his father, Casimir, Peter served for years as a member of the museum's board of trustees, including 10 as its president. He and his wife, Carol, gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to the institution — $150,000 alone to refurbish the former Willard-Case Mansion's 1850 carriage house as Theater Mack, plus another $50,000 they raised for the project from friends. And Mack Studios, the Auburn design/build company Casimir started and Peter now runs, volunteered its 80 employees and state-of-the-art equipment to create many of the museum's displays.

In gratitude, the museum board named the theater after Mack and his family.

"We have a lot of history with the museum," Mack said. "I felt like I was at home there."

By the beginning of 2017, a tired Mack had left the board, feeling Theater Mack completed a circuit of restoration projects on the museum's campus that also included the mansion's exterior, attic and upstairs storage space. But Mack, a renowned jazz bassist, had been returning to the theater to perform concerts with musicians of similar repute, paying them himself so the museum could raise money. At one concert, he recalled, Mack had about 20 people in the audience buy a copy of his CD, then gave the handful of cash to museum Executive Director Eileen McHugh on the spot.

Mack was set to return for two free concerts this year. They were to be funded by a $2,000 grant to the museum from state Sen. John A. DeFrancisco's Arts in Cayuga County program, as well as a matching donation from Mack. The grant program, which is administered by Auburn Public Theater and its executive director, Carey Eidel, funded a Mack jazz concert at the museum's theater the year prior. Assuming Mack and the museum were still close, Eidel met with him in January to arrange the next two concerts.

"This grant came to fruition because Sen. DeFrancisco is a big fan of jazz," Eidel said. "Peter is one of the best around. He plays with the best people, and he's really on a different level."

After Eidel proposed the concerts to the museum, however, he was asked to meet with McHugh, board President Christina Calarco and another board member. Eidel said the three wanted to know if they could replace Mack with a different performer at one of the concerts, and if they could charge admission, without forfeiting the grant. Eidel explained that they could. Though he was taken aback by the museum's resistance to Mack playing both concerts at the theater, Eidel said he understood McHugh and the trustees wanting a say in how their grant money was spent.

Indeed, McHugh said they met with Eidel because he and Mack, neither of whom work at the museum, were proposing to spend that money on something that wouldn't support it.

And that, McHugh continued, was "unacceptable to our board." 

"We are not in the business of promoting Peter's band," she said. "That is doing nothing for the museum."

While McHugh and the board saw the concerts as a matter of self-interest, Mack saw them as one of respect. He may have no longer been on the board, but he had been one of its most active and giving members for years. And that time and money, Mack reasoned, was more than worth a couple of nights on the stage of the theater he helped renovate.

That's why, when told by Eidel what happened at his meeting with the museum, Mack experienced what he called "a fit of anger." He phoned McHugh and, she said, "behaved extremely unprofessionally." Within minutes, Mack emailed her and the board to sever his longtime relationship with the museum. He also made another request: He wanted his name off the theater.

"After the hundreds of thousands of dollars I gave, they basically sold my relationship to them down the river for a grand," he said. "I couldn't control myself. I had that much anger after I heard what they had done. I felt terrible that I did it, but I'm a human being. I couldn't help myself."

Weeks later, Mack was approached by attorney John Rossi. The former board member, whom Mack recruited during his time as president, was accompanied by two current ones. Rossi said he advised his friend that after all the time and money the Maciulewicz family gave the museum, as well as the fiery impetus for Peter's request, it was in everyone's best interest that the board vote to keep "Mack" on the theater. Still angry at the museum, but agreeing that "Mack" also meant his family and company, Peter backed Rossi's position: He wanted his family's name to remain on the theater.

Rossi then sent a letter to the museum board Feb. 22.

"I believe that if the name is removed there would be substantial inquiries throughout the community for the reason. All parties have people who would be favorable to their position, however airing one's 'dirty laundry' will benefit no one," he wrote. "I can not recognize any positive benefits for the Museum as a result of this action."

Rossi said he never received a response to the letter. He did meet with a few board members, as the vote on the name's removal from the theater drew near. All but one reacted positively to his argument for keeping it, Rossi said, and the other was noncommittal. But on Feb. 27, the board voted: Theater Mack would become the Cayuga Museum Carriage House Theater.

A few of the "nos" Rossi and Mack anticipated weren't at the vote, they said. Board President Calarco said the board members who did vote to change the name were motivated by the opportunity to rebrand the theater "so that it is more in line with our mission." She deferred further comment on the matter to the museum's legal representative, Jeff Gosch, who declined comment.

McHugh said the new name emphasizes the theater's history — and by bearing the museum's name, the new one makes the theater easier for visitors to find. But she added that the museum's relationship with Mack also motivated the board's vote. Though he has been "extremely generous" to the institution, Mack could be commanding toward its personnel, McHugh said.

"We debated long and hard, but in the end, we decided we couldn't allow someone to call the shots for us," she said. "You don't talk to people that way."

Mack responded that the only thing he wanted to command was the respect a donor of his magnitude deserves. With its vote, he continued, the museum board denied not only him that respect, but his family.

"I told them to take my name off the building. My mother didn't. ... My sisters and brothers haven't. My two kids haven't. And that's our name," he said. "It's ironic that they decided that someone else can't make a decision who's going to play there, but they can make a decision who's in charge of my name."

For that reason, Rossi sent the museum board another letter on April 17. After suggesting that some members may not have understood the Maciulewicz family's legacy at the museum when they voted to rename the theater, Rossi requested on Peter and his family's behalf that the museum repay them $125,000 in funds they gave to renovate it. He argued that the board accepted the money on the "express condition" that it name the theater after the family, and that the board's vote to rename it made repayment to the family "properly and legally demanded."

McHugh, however, said the theater's naming wasn't a quid pro quo. 

"I deal with donations all the time. I'm careful about accepting things that have strings attached," she said. "Our museum and our legal advisers feel we have no problem defending our decisions."

The name change didn't take effect until late August, after the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival's The Pitch series ended its summer run at the theater. Meanwhile, the museum presented a new Earth Fest event in April and a jazz concert by another artist in May, both with funding from DeFrancisco's program. Eidel said the museum is in line to receive another grant from it next year.

Less certain is the possibility of legal action against the museum by Mack and his family. Peter said he's "still cooling off," so he has yet to decide. Rossi has been in contact with the museum's legal representation, but said it is unclear what a resolution would look like. Additionally, Rossi is unsure "if Peter would accept anything different besides restoration of the name."

Whether or not the dispute is resolved, Mack said he is done with the Cayuga Museum until McHugh and a few members of its board of trustees are, too. It's them he blames for ruining his relationship with what "was really a special place to me," a place he'd stop on the way home from school to gaze at its Native American artifacts and cases of glow-in-the-dark birds — a place he, his family and his company helped build into what it is today.

"They can't remember the history of what people do there," Mack said. "They're in the history business. And they don't even know their own history."

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'Test your limits': Challengers take on the Finger Lakes Mud Run in Owasco

OWASCO — Matt Gelatt emerged from the Finger Lakes Mud Run looking like a living monument to dirt and earth — and was bleeding from a hole in his leg.

But he couldn't stop smiling.

Gelatt, a SUNY Cortland student, didn't notice his new gash until it was pointed out to him. Despite it, he said he felt great and had a fantastic time. He suspects the wound came from when he was in the giant mud pit presented at the end of the charity course. The pit felt like it was one foot deep when he first hopped in, and then it quickly became three-feet deep when once he got to another step, he said.

Gelatt, president of the running and triathlon club at the college, said his group came to the event to simply have fun.

The sixth annual event presented hundreds of entrants with 35 obstacles over a 4.5 mile stretch in Everest Park in Owasco Saturday. The course is a fundraiser for Champions for Life Sports Center, the park and the Brian Bisgrove Home for Courage,  where central New York children with life-threatening illnesses or debilitating medical conditions and their families can go for a respite.

Mudders 12 and older had their own course, while challengers ages 4 to 11 took on a condensed version of the event, while still likely ending up equally muddy.

At one point, Andrew Espey, decked out in bright pink, ran across a visibly tired Ely Williams, who had on a shirt with the iconic "S" seen in Superman comics, with a red cape to boot. To put an extra spring in Williams' step, Espey shouted "I bet I can beat you!" to which Williams let out an exasperated, "I bet you can!"

Members of the 15-person strong Muddy Nutty Mother Mudders team were still shouting and hopping around after conquering the race. Most of the mud-covered members were veterans of the contest, but they brought a couple of "newbies" with them, including Julie Hertlein. Hertlein said her favorite part of the challenge was blazing across the ropes course. She proudly said that instead of hesitating, she simply thought, "I'm Tarzan, woo!" and swung across. 

The Muddy Mudders were far from the only thrill-seekers who streaked across Everest Park, as Cody Blaisdell of Auburn said he normally does 10 races like this a year.

Why would he subject himself to such a thing?

"To test your body, test your limits, push harder every time," Blaisdell said.

Schumer: Preserve historic places

As a bill to study national park status for an Oswego County historic site is considered in Congress, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer used his support for the legislation to highlight a larger problem: the possibility that the Trump administration will scale back protections for national monuments and other historic sites.

Schumer's concern stems from an executive order issued by President Donald Trump requiring Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review 27 national monuments designated by his predecessors, including President Barack Obama.

In August, Zinke recommended that Trump reduce the size of three national monuments — Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah and Cascade-Siskiyou in Oregon.

There's also the proposed budget released by Trump in the spring. His spending plan would slash the Department of the Interior's budget by 11 percent. The National Park Service, which is an agency within the Interior Department, would have its budget reduced to $2.55 billion.

The Trump administration's actions come as five New Yorkers, including Schumer, are advocating for legislation that would require the Department of the Interior to study national park status for Fort Ontario and the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum in Oswego.

U.S. Rep. John Katko, who represents Oswego, sponsors the bill in the House. U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand introduced the measure in the Senate with Schumer, D-N.Y., as the lead cosponsor.

"The federal government should be doing everything possible to preserve the rich history of historic landmarks, like supporting the Fort Ontario and Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum," Schumer said in a statement provided to The Citizen. "I will continue to do everything possible to give this site the official recognition it deserves, but will also stand guard against any attempt by this administration to roll back protections that preserve our historic landmarks and public lands."

The House passed the Fort Ontario Study Act earlier this year, but it hasn't advanced in the Senate. The legislation was in a similar position last year. The House approved it, but it wasn't considered in the Senate.

During a visit to Fort Ontario in August, Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said the bill failed to advance because an unnamed senator opposed including any national park-related legislation in an end-of-session measure.

Gillibrand and Katko, R-Camillus, reintroduced their bills in January. The House has passed it again and the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources approved it in April.

Oswego County's federal, state and local officials agree that the legislation is important for the future of the site. Fort Ontario was used as a military installation dating back to the French and Indian War and the American Revolution.

The fort became a shelter for Holocaust refugees during the final years of World War II. Nearly 1,000 refugees were housed at the site.

After the war, military veterans and their families lived at the fort. It was transferred to the state, which made it a historic site in 1953. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.

The study is a necessary step in the process of designating new national parks. Once the study is completed, lawmakers could introduce legislation to establish the national park.

"It's important to me, and especially those living in Oswego County, for the world to learn Fort Ontario's history and attract new visitors to the area," Schumer said. ​