By Dan Hust
ROCK HILL Could the laughter that’s faded from the Catskills return?
That’s the question RH Land Development and the New York Friars Club hope to answer in coming months.
The duo has applied to the state for funding to open a Comedy Hall of Fame on land RH owns off Rock Hill Drive in Rock Hill.
“The club has entered into a working agreement to lend our name and operate the Friars Comedy Hall of Fame as part of a multifaceted tourist destination project,” wrote Club Abbott and comedy icon Jerry Lewis in a July 9 letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo.
“When fully completed, the Comedy Hall of Fame at Rock Hill Town Center will have a dramatic and transformative impact in the Catskills region and in New York State,” he added.
That letter has also been sent to the governor by celebrities such as Tom Cruise, Larry King, Hugh Hefner and Joan Rivers, many of whom are members of the Manhattan-based club, which over the past century has become well-known for its celebrity roasts and charitable endeavors.
The more than 50 letters are just one part of a consolidated funding application RH and the club have made to the state, angling for a share of $530 million in state funding through the Mid-Hudson Regional Economic Development Council.
“The members of the Friars Club have long sought a home to display our archives, celebrate their historic value and educate the general public about the storied past of entertainers that have brought laughter, good cheer and comic relief to most of the country and parts of the world for over a hundred years,” wrote Lewis.
“RH Land Development’s vision to house the Comedy Hall of Fame in New York State and the Catskills, in particular, makes the most sense, since so many members and founders of the Friars began their careers there ... making it the most appropriate location for such a grand project.”
RH principal and former Empire Resorts CEO Robert Berman likened the idea to another famous museum.
“It will take a public-private partnership to make this project a reality,” he said. “We hope that New York State will see the economic benefits to this important venue in the same way that Ohio and the City of Cleveland did with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
Berman, a Sullivan County native, has a variety of property, business and family ties to the county and Rock Hill in particular, where Cinium Financial Services Corporation of which he is president, CEO and board chairman maintains an office.
The Friars Club itself declined to comment, only saying that the project is in a very early stage of discussion, but their letters strongly suggest that state funding is crucial to the plan.
Though the state refused to release or comment on the application, the Democrat has learned that the first phase of the project would include a 50,000-square-foot hall of fame and 90,000 square feet of “lifestyle retail” lining a walkway.
The attraction would sit to the north of Rock Hill Drive, visible from Route 17 in both directions, where RH once intended to site over 1,000 homes in the original “Rock Hill Town Center” proposal.
RH estimates as many as a million more visitors would come to such a facility, which Sullivan County Visitors Association President Roberta Byron-Lockwood said is “a very logical number.”
“I think comedy is something that spans all ages,”she remarked.
She and a few other local officials have already seen a presentation on the concept.
“We were supportive of the project from its inception,” she said. “The project he [Berman] is planning is going to be absolutely exceptional.”
“Obviously it would be a huge addition to our tourism industry here,” agreed Sullivan County Chamber of Commerce President Terri Ward. “I think it’s phenomenal, and I support this 100 percent.”
“It makes perfect sense,” noted Legislature Chairman Scott Samuelson. “... Every comedian in the last generation got their start here. Get it open!”
Thompson Supervisor Tony Cellini, who’s witnessed plenty a dream come and go, was cautious in his optimism.
“We haven’t seen the plans yet,” he explained. “But we need something to happen here, and we support a project of this nature.”
Still, it won’t be in front of the town’s various boards until state funding is secured. State spokesman Jason Conwall said a decision on that and more than 600 other applications sent to the Mid-Hudson Council will be forthcoming around October.