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Spa City Confidential
The summer place to be still holds secrets, along with some mysterious people and places
By Shawn Stone

Anyone who has been in the area 15 minutes likely knows the basics about Saratoga Springs. There’s the world-famous, first-in-the-nation thoroughbred track, the presence of which makes Saratoga Springs the oh-so-trendy epicenter of August activity. There’s a performing-arts center, which hosts a major classical orchestra, a big-time ballet company, touring rock bands and an annual jazz festival. The center sits in the middle of a beautiful state park, which also hosts a luxury hotel, a theater, a golf course, an auto museum and a health spa of the sort that put the city on the map in the first place. The downtown area is thick with stylish shops and fine restaurants that, in summertime, are packed with stylish, swanky folks (including, as seen and noted on a recent Saturday afternoon, a few men of a certain age dressed in their best Mary Lou Whitney finery). There are a few people and places you might not be familiar with, however:

Longtime residents and visitors may remember that the National Museum of Dance & Hall of Fame on Route 9 (just south of the city) used to be the Washington bath house. What you may not know is that when the building was transformed into a museum, one room was kept “as is,” with an original bath and a host of weird, early-20th-century health equipment. Reportedly, it includes items like a heat booth lined with light bulbs—the kind that turns up in Our Gang and Three Stooges movies, in which people once voluntarily sat with only their heads poking up out of the box to sweat away the toxins and/or pounds. (It’s a contraption that, while cutting edge when FDR was in the White House, today bears a stronger resemblance to a medieval torture device.)

The room has not been available for public viewing since the museum opened, but there are long-term plans to change that. According to Heather Varney, the museum’s operations and business manager, they are in talks with the Preservation Society of New York to restore the room to its original condition, and open it to the public. According to Maggie Moss-Tucker, who is involved in this project, the idea is to have the public “actually understand what the building was used for.” While it would not be a part of the formal museum tour—after all, it doesn’t have anything to do with the mission of a dance museum—it will be an interesting window on Saratoga’s spa history.

You’ve heard of the horsey set, but do you know the Silly Pink Bunnies? They are neither silly nor rose-colored. Hell, they’re not even rabbits. They are, as cofounder Greer Mirling explains, an international skateboard gang that got their start in Saratoga Springs. They have so much street cred, Mirling doesn’t even mention it. With large warrens in San Francisco, Denver and New York City (and smaller dens around the world), the Silly Pink Bunnies love to skateboard and listen to punk rock. There are, according to Mirling, thousands of them.

What do they do? They skateboard. They keep it real and keep quiet about it. They are very big in the skateboard community, but refuse to accept any kind of corporate sponsorship. They hold a convention every year, where they do their thing. And, frankly, the SPBs don’t give a crap what anyone else thinks about them.

“We show up places and confuse people,” Mirling says.

If you happen to stumble on one of their Web sites, you’ll be confused all right. Just Google “silly pink bunnies”—there are a number of locations on the Web. What will you find? Pictures of skateboards, and pictures of skateboarders hanging out, having fun and showing off horrendous bruises. There is little text, and nothing that would give them away. Like everything else about the Bunnies, the sites are as cryptic and mysterious as a secret Masonic codebook.

When this is mentioned to Mirling, he laughs at the confused reactions of non-Bunnies: “there’s no story—you either figured it out or you didn’t.” They are active in the Saratoga Springs community, too. Over the years, members have been active in standing up for skateboarders’ rights. They were instrumental in the construction of the new “concrete pool” for skateboarders in the city.

While there are springs scattered throughout downtown and on th grounds of the state park, there is only one with what has been described as a “breathing hole.” The Hayes spring, on the park grounds, not only has water spouting out of the front, it has an air-release pipe sticking out of the back which periodically emits blasts of the same gasses that power the spring waters. While it would not be advisable to try this, one longtime area resident attests that if you inhale one of these emissions, “it does a number on your head.” By this, of course, he means it cleans out your sinuses—it will not make you high. (So to you doper types, we plead: Leave it alone, OK?)

Then there are the assorted weird rumors. Supposedly, there’s something called the “chess club.” According to my intrepid source, this may not still exist—or even have existed at all. This involved a group of bored kids who would go to an abandoned hospital , and sit up all night in the former psyche ward playing chess (“the spirits that walked around the old building helped them play better chess.”) My source new someone who claimed to be a part of this. There are rumors of ghosts all over town: the Adelphi Hotel, the Bachellor Inn and the Gideon Putnam Cemetery, on S. Franklin Street, lead the list. (These you’ll have to check out on your own.) Also, there’s the story that a famous race horse was buried in the middle of the Saratoga Racehorse—for good luck. According to my source, who worked at the track a few summers, the old timers he talked with said it was true.

Finally, just behind Broadway, (and parallel to that main thoroughfare) is something you might not know is there: a fault line. Despite the fact that minor earthquakes intermittently occur around the north country, the Saratoga Fault isn’t active. There isn’t even any record of seismic activity. The fault, however (which is visible at High Rock Park) is the reason the springs exist. Simply put, it allows the water to bubble up through the shale. No springs, no Saratoga Springs—and no “summer place to be.”

This Week in Saratoga

Friday, Aug. 22

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs. 8/22, 8:15 PM: The Philadelphia Orchestra, with pianist Andre Watts, performs works by Wagner, Schumann and Beethoven. $56-$14.50.

National Museum of Horse Racing, 191 Union Ave., Saratoga. 8/22, 10 AM-noon: John Eisenberg signs Native Dancer: The Grey Ghost. For more information, call 584-0400 ext. 117.

Children’s Museum at Saratoga, 69 Caroline St., Saratoga Springs. 8/22, 10 AM-2 PM: Make your own hobbyhorse in a drop-in workshop. For more information, call 584-5540.

Celebration to Honor Funny Cide will take place on 8/22 at 7 PM at the Lodge on Nelson Avenue, Saratoga, to benefit the Saratoga Performing Arts Center classical programs. Admission is by reservation only, at $150. 584-9330.

The Fifth Annual Travers Wine Tasting to benefit the Senior Services of Albany Meals on Wheels program will take place on 8/22 from 6:30-9:30 PM at the National Museum of Dance, Saratoga Springs. Rain or Shine. $75 in advance, $80 at the door. 463-4381.

Saturday, Aug. 23

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs. 8/23, 8:15 PM: The Philadelphia Orchestra, with pianist Lang Lang, performs works by Greig, Tchaikovsky, Ravel and Falla. $56-$14.50. 587-3330.

New York State Military Museum, 297 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 8/23, 2 PM: Dr. Robin D. Campbell will present “Mistresses of the Transient Earth,” as part of the four-part Gosling Lecture Series. 587-3241.

Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, Skidmore College, 815 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 8/23, 2-3:30 PM: Participants in the “Sleeves and Collars” family workshop will learn to create wearable art from hardware-store materials. 580-8080.

The Albany-Schenectady League of Arts will hold its Summer Gala on 8/23 at the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga beginning at 7 PM. $40 for League Members, $45 non-League Members and $50 at the door. Proceeds to benefit the Albany-Schenectady League of Arts programs and artists. 449-5380.

Sunday, Aug. 24

Spa Little Theater, Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs. 8/24, 2:15 PM: The Jupiter Trio and special guests perform works by Beethoven, Bresnick and Dvorák. $32.50, $27.50. 584-6018.

Craven Books, 441 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 8/24, 10 AM-1 PM and 6-8 PM: Local author Tom Calarco will sign copies of The Underground Railroad. 583-0025.

Tuesday, Aug. 26

Cooking for Kids to Benefit Local Children’s Charities will be held on 8/26 from 7-10 PM at the Saratoga-Wilton Elks. Tickets are $20 and information is available at Compliments to the Chef, 488 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 226-4477.

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