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Grand Hotel

Changes at the Queensbury reflect city’s history
By David Blow, Staff Writer for the Post Star
December 6th, 1988

After performing at the Glens Falls Civic Center in the early 1980’s, Bob Hope strolled into the Queensbury Hotel without an entourage, just like any other hotel guest.

More than 300 fans were waiting in the hotel lobby for a chance to see him, but he waded through the crowd alone, politely saying “hello, good bye” to everyone he passed-never breaking his stride to the elevator, former hotel manager Leo Turley recalled.

But when Bob Dylan stayed at the Queensbury several years later, a force of about a dozen handles and bodyguards moved into the hotel to fend off any fans seeking a piece of their boss. Because of security concerns , Dylan even obtained special permission from the city to drive the wrong way down Ridge Street ( it was one-way northbound at the time) to get from the hotel to the Civic Center, Turley said.

Ironically though, not one fan showed up at the hotel, the heavy security seemed somewhat comical-even to Dylan himself, Turley said. When the legendary folk singer realized his security detail might be a bit more than was necessary, he smirked to Turley on his way to the concert, as if to say “whoops”, Turley said.

“Not one single person showed up to bother him,” Turley said between hearty laughs. “He looked at me and laughed at himself.”

Dylan and Hope are just two among a long line of celebrities who have stayed at the Queensbury since the stately hotel first opened its doors in 1926. If the hotel’s walls could talk, they would tell of visits by entertainers as diverse as Louis Armstrong, Ozzy Osborne, Kenny Rogers, Dan Aykroyd, Billy Joel, and the rock bands Phish and ZZ Top.

They’d also tell of visits by sports stars like Kenny Anderson, Joe Frazier and Mike Tyson- and by powerful statesmen and politicians from Robert F. Kennedy and Nelson A Rockefeller to George E. Pataki and, before he turned from acting to politics, Ronald Regan.

And they’d tell of at least one scheming confidence man who used the hotel as his home for several months while posing as an heir to the Vanderbilt fortune.

Witness to Change

The landmark hotel, built in the 1920’s as an expression of civic pride by a group of the city’s top business leader’s, has mirrored the changing civic and business life of Glens Falls itself during the past seven decades.

Once owned by the civic-minded businessmen who built it, the hotel is now owned by A.Ahlstorm Corp., a Finland- based company with a local machinery division. In that sense, the Queensbury reflects a broader trend of the past few decades, in which most of the region’s biggest manufacturing and service companies have been absorbed by large corporations based elsewhere.

Changes in the entertainment industry have also been reflected at the Queensbury.

Years ago, the hotels ballroom was the site of regular performances by big band stars including, Benny Goodman, and Guy Lombardo, who once thrilled area residents at the annual policemen’s ball. Later, after construction of the Glens Falls Civic Center in the 1970’s, the Queensbury mainly served just as the lodging place for visiting stars.

But today, with most big name entertainment shunning the Civic Center in favor of larger venues like the Times Union Center in Albany, the only musical acts that typically visit the Queensbury are local disc jockeys and rock ‘n’ roll banks performing at wedding receptions at the hotel.

That leads some longtime area residents to believe that the hotel has lost some of the elite luster.

“It was more popular (years ago) than it is now,” said Don A. Metivier, a local author and historian who is also a former Post-Star reporter. “It was “the” place in Glens Falls at one time.”

But even more people like Metivier acknowledge that the hotel remains a centerpiece of the city, a sort of crown jewel of downtown Glens Falls.

It is the Queensbury, after all, that remains the hotel of choice for corporate visitors and traveling sports teams that play at the Civic Center. Area civic organizations choose the hotel for their weekly luncheons, and politicians use it for their election night celebrations. And for anyone visiting Glens Falls on business or pleasure, the hotel remains a unique alternative to the chain motels clustered near the areas Northway exits.

“I’ve known people who moved here after staying a night at the Queensbury,” Mayor Robert A Regan said. “They looked out the window at City Park and said, “What a great place to live.”

Glimpses of Glamour

Among the many celebrities who spend a night or two at the Queensbury over the years, most of those who stick out in the memory of the hotels current and former staff are the ones who didn’t put on airs because of their fame. James Askew, a doorman at the hotel from 1957-1968 said of all the people he opened doors and carried bags for during his years, Louis Armstrong provided the most memorable encounter.

“I’ll never forget him, “said Askew, now 78. “I put his bags in his car and started to walk away. He said “wait a minute daddy-o, let me lay some bread on ya” I didn’t have any problem stopping, he added.

Turley, the hotels manager from 1979-90 told how the singer Anne Murray once offered an impromptu performance of Happy Birthday for an elderly woman who happened to be having a birthday dinner at a nearby table in the hotel’s restaurant.

But he remembers the boxer Mike Tyson as the hotel guest who most strongly defined the stereotype of the demanding celebrity.

“He was the epitome of good manners and quite,” Turley said. “The help just loved him. We all said he’ll be the most popular champion in history.”

For Heinz Schefold, the hotel’s director of operations, Tyson, Bob Hope and Kenny Rogers are the visitors that left the biggest impression. “I met two Bob Hopes: the one without makeup, who looked 100 years old; and the one with makeup, who looked about 60,” Schefold said. “They were two totally different people.”

When he took Hop’s bags to his car on one occasion, he said Hope started to top him, but he refused the tip-in part because he was being watched by a crowd of Hope’s fans.

“He said to me, what are you independently wealthy?” Schefold said,” Kenny Rogers was the nicest celebrity he’s ever dealt with, even though he stayed at the hotel when he was at the peak of his career. He even played football in the park,”

But it was his encounter with Tyson that left the strongest visual image. Schefold said he can still picture the muscle-bound boxer sitting in the hotel Jacuzzi. Schefold approached to see if Tyson wanted anything. He wanted a carafe of orange juice, “I said no problem.”

The Imposter

Perhaps the most notorious guest ever to stay at the Queensbury wasn’t a celebrity- at least not until after he checked out.

The guest identified himself as Paul S. Vanderbilt and gave a home address on Park Avenue in New York City, but police later identified his as Brian M. McDevitt a 20 year old from Boston.

In 1980, McDevitt stayed at the Queensbury on and off for several months, playing the role if a wealthy heir, betting on horses in Saratoga Springs and spending lavishly throughout the area.

“The staff said he was very very good tipper,” said Metivier, who later wrote extensively about McDevitt’s case. The case broke on December 22, 1980 when police said McDevitt teamed up with a mild mannered assistant manager at the hotel to hijack a Federal Express truck and attempt a $50 million heist of art at The Hyde Collection museum in Glens Falls. In a caper fit for a Tom Clancy novel, the hotel employee- armed with a pellet gun and handcuffs-used later to knock out the woman driver of a Federal Express truck in South Glens falls, said South Glens Falls Police Chief Kevin Judd, then a sergeant investigated the case and now says it was easily the most interesting he has ever probed.

The employee bound the driver and quickly headed for the Hyde, where McDevitt awaited. Unfortunately for the scheming duo, holiday traffic was unusually heavy, and it took a lot longer than expected to drive the truck from South Glens Falls to the museum. By the time the truck arrived, it was eight minutes too late. The museum had closed for the day.

The two men then released the driver and the can, but McDevitt and his accomplice were both arrested and charged with kidnapping the nest day. Both ended up serving time in Saratoga County jail. A report on the attempted heist was later aired on the television new show” 60 minutes” in 1992.

Metivier said he was told by the FBI official that the art theft, if successful, would have been one of the biggest of all time.

After McDevitt was arrested, he told police the money for his lavish stay at the Queensbury had come from a $100, 000 thefts from a safety deposit box at a Boston bank. Francis X. O’keefe, who was then, the Glens Falls city treasure, said he remembers encountering McDevitt after stopping to check out a Rolls-Royce in the Queensbury hotels parking lot.

O’Keffe said he made the mistake of touching a bronze nameplate on the car. Within seconds, he said McDevitt sprang out of the hotel yelling at him. “He ripped me up one side and down the other, O’Keefe said. “I wiped the nameplate off with my handkerchief, True Story.”

But Turley said most people around town suspected McDevitt was an imposter, in part because he paid for everything in cash and because he over tipped. “I wouldn’t let him run up a bill,” Turley said. I knew he was a phony. We didn’t know if he was counterfeiter or what, but we knew he was phony. What Vanderbilt doesn’t have a credit card?”

The Kennedy Promise

Although numerous New York governors and congressmen have spoken at the hotel over the years, it is Robert F. Kennedy’s visit to the Queensbury on the day after he was elected to the U.S senator in1964 that still remains linked in many peoples memories to perhaps the most electrifying local political even of the recent decades.

On Sept 10th 1964, Kennedy was scheduled to speak in City Park as part of an upstate campaign tour. Metivier who was covering the event for the Post- Star said Kennedy was suppose to appear about 9pm. But the candidate was running hour late.

Kennedy’s staff asked city leaders whether he should even bother to come, because it would be nearly 1am before he’d arrive in the city. The city leaders said “yes”. As Kenney rode into the city from the Warren County Airport, thousands of people lined Dix Avenue, many in pajamas. Thousands more were waiting in the city park.” He told the crowd that he’d never seen anything like that anywhere in the world, he coved that he would return to the city after the election win or lose “Meitiver said. That Wednesday, the day after the election he showed up for a luncheon at the Queensbury Hotel, He kept his promise.

At the luncheon, both Kennedy and his wife Ethel, who was expecting the couple’s ninth child pledged to work hard for the North Country and for Glens Falls in particular, according to Post Star reports at the time. “Glens Falls brought hope and promised to Bobby. He will do the same for Glens Falls,” Ethel Kennedy told the crowd. The senator elect later joked about his crushing defeat of Republican Kenneth Keating in Glens Falls, despite his overall loss in Republican dominated Warren and Washington counties. He promised to return to the city again, and he did so in 1966 and in 1967.

Building a Landmark

The notion of building a centerpiece hotel in the city was proposed as early as 1916 by the Glens Falls Chamber of Commerce. But it wasn’t until a group of wealthy businessmen got behind the idea that the project took off.

In an unprecedented show of business and civic teamwork that likely couldn’t be duplicated today, 100 businessmen met at the former Glens Falls Insurance co. offices in 1924 and voted to raise $600,000 to get the hotel project off the ground. Enthusiasm by city residents and businessmen allowed $440,000 a substantial sum at the time, to be raised for the project in only eight days. A total of $474,000 was raised within a month, and it was decided that the remained of the estimated $760,000 needed to build and equip the hotel would be borrowed.

Among the major early contributors wee the Glens Falls Insurance Co. and Finch, Pruyn &Co., which each chipped in $50,000. In April 1924, the local businessmen formed the Glens Falls Hotel Corp., which would own the hotel for 32 years.

In the spirit of teamwork and thriftiness, officers of the hotel corporation chose to raise money for the project themselves rather than hiring a professional consultant as would commonly be done today. This saved $35,000 according to newspaper reports at the time.

In addition, a committee overseeing the project, led by George Bayle Sr. and Frank M. Smally, didn’t charge the corporation for time, mileage, or travel expenses. Ground was broken on Jun 9th 1924 and progressed steadily until the hotel was finally ready to open its doors in May 1926.