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World-class artists beat path to Foxburg

The Allegheny RiverStone Center for the Arts is located in Lincoln Hall on the second floor of the library in Foxburg. The center’s first performance season was in 2006 and continues through December this year. ERIC FREEHLING/BUTLER EAGLE

FOXBURG, Clarion County — Nestled along a curve of the Allegheny River, Foxburg, with its winery, restaurant and hotel seems a likely destination for day-trippers and boaters.

But since 2006, its also been a destination for world-class musicians, organists and performers. They are drawn by the Allegheny RiverStone Center for the Arts with its McKissick Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Organ and the 7-foot Steinway grand piano.

It also attracted center executive director John Soroka and his wife, Katherine Soroka, artistic director of the performances and media manager.

He was the principal percussionist for the Pittsburgh Symphony for 30 years. She was senior manager of the New York Philharmonic, first executive director of the Grand Teton Music Festival in Jackson Hole, Wy., and a faculty member and administrator at the Manhattan School of Music, as well as an active singer and teacher.

So when they moved onto a nearby farm 11 years ago it was almost fated they became involved with the Allegheny RiverStone Center for the Arts.

The center was one of several renovation projects undertaken by Arthur and Patricia Steffee. He was an orthopedic surgeon from Cleveland and she was a nurse. When they retired, the Steffees moved to Foxburg where they restored the founding Fox family’s mansion Riverstone and developed buildings and businesses in Foxburg, including the center, and the neighboring Red Brick Gallery housed in an old bank building.

“Dr. Steffee was a visionary, a Renaissance man,” said Katherine Soroka. “They took this on. They built the estate, Riverstone — the hotel, the pizza shop.”

Because Steffee was a classical music lover, she said, the center was a special project.

“We met Dr. Steffee in 2004 when he was creating (Allegheny RiverStone Center for the Arts),” said Katherine Soroka. She sang at the first classical concert at center in 2006.

The center is located in the restored Lincoln Hall atop the Foxburg Free Library. John Soroka said the hall was built in 1909 to serve as a theatrical community center.

“When the hall was restored, they found one of the original backdrops under the floor of the stage. It’s an actual scene looking down the Allegheny River,” he said. The foundation of the house shown in the backdrop can still be seen just off a bicycle trail south of Foxburg.

The canvas backdrop was restored by Emlenton artist Andor Jobb and now hangs at the back of the stage.

The intimate hall holds 130 seats, as well as a 1928 Wurlitzer organ. “Everything is up-close and personal,” said Katherine Soroka about the space.

John Soroka said the Wurlitzer organs were developed during the era of silent movies and were designed to replace the small orchestras that had provided accompaniment to the movies. The organs were designed to replicate all the sounds of the orchestra including percussion instruments.

“This one was in the Palace Theater in Cleveland. A retired engineer at Joy Manufacturing in Emlenton, Paul McKissick, spent 11 years refurbishing it,” he said, before Steffee bought it and installed it in Lincoln Hall.

To demonstrate the full range of the Wurlitzer’s abilities, the center has presented concerts featuring nationally acclaimed organists, including David Wickerham, Martin Ellis, Walt Strony, Scott Foppiano, Donna Parker, Jelani Eddington and Ken Double.

A 501 (c) (3) nonprofit arts organization since 2006, the center has provided an annual series of concerts and events from March through December, including classical music recitals, chamber music, jazz, rock and Celtic music; Wurlitzer Theatre Organ concerts; cabaret; dance; drama; literature; film; and visual arts.

“We try to appeal to the largest possible audience,” Katherine Soroka said. “From the beginning, we’ve had a broad cross section of entertainment: rock, blues, jazz, cabaret artists. In the back of the hall people can get up and dance.”

Fine arts exhibits are presented in the Red Brick Gallery and Gift Shop — founded in 2011 and housed in a 136-year-old building that was once the business office of the founding Fox family — is the center's boutique fine art gallery and gift shop.

“There’s an artists’ collective, a group of 15 cooperative artists (whose works) are always on display and for sale on the ground floor,” Katherain Soroka said. The second floor contains a rotating selection of artists, most recently Taylor Banner and Amanda Lewis, both of Clarion.

“We’re proud to give artists a place to be shown,” Katherine Soroka said.

It’s all part of the center’s mission is to provide stimulating and enriching professional arts and education programs, touching the lives of thousands of people living in the six-county, Allegheny Valley Region — Clarion, Venango, Armstrong, Butler, Mercer and Crawford counties.

The Sorokas said the center couldn’t function without a dedicated crew of volunteers that do everything from make service calls to keep the Wurlitzer in peak operating condition to manning the gallery.

Katherine Soroka said audiences and performers alike feel compelled to return.

“They come here and they want to come back,” she said. It’s the combination of the scenic landscape, intimate performance space and appreciative audiences.

“It’s a wonderful intersection of culture, recreation and beauty,” Katherine Soroka said about Foxburg.

Katherine Soroka shows off the Steinway grand piano on the stage of Lincoln Hall. The restored backdrop behind her was found under the stage floor during Lincoln Hall’s renovation and dates to the early 1900s when the space was used as a theatrical community center. ERIC FREEHLING/BUTLER EAGLE
This McKissick Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Organ was restored by Paul McKissick of Franklin. It was built in 1928 and was used to accompany silent movies at a theater in Cleveland. ERIC FREEHLING/BUTLER EAGLE
Katherine and George Soroka are the artistic director and executive director, respectively, of the Allegheny RiverStone Center for the Arts. They showed off the second-floor exhibition space in the neighboring Red Brick Gallery. ERIC FREEHLING/BUTLER EAGLE

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