The Bardavon Tour Historical Slide Show
The oldest continuously operating theatre in New York State is Poughkeepsie's Bardavon Opera House. For its first fifty years the theatre was called the Collingwood Opera House. It's owner was James Collingwood, a coal and lumber merchant. Born in England, Collingwood had become one of Poughkeepsie's wealthiest men by the time he built the theatre. Construction of the new music hall began in June, 1868 and was completed in eight months. The site was behind an office building Collingwood had built five years earlier. It had been the uptown branch of his coal and lumber yard.
The Collingwood Opera House is behind the building on the right with the semi-circular Opera sign. The entrance to the theater is through a passageway in the center of the building which had been a driveway for coal wagons. The first designs for the theater were by J.A. Wood, a prominent Poughkeepsie architect who had his office in Collingwood's building. Mr. James S. Post, supervised the construction of the building and he is given credit as architect. The City Directory listed him as a builder and carpenter until after building the theatre, when he was listed as an architect.
The Collingwood Opera House opened on Monday, February 1, 1869 with The Citizens Complimentary Concert to the generous and public - spirited, Mr. James Collingwood. The Eastman College Band and singers and musicians from New York City were the featured entertainment. Reviews stated that the opera house was "just right" in appearance, comfort and adaptation to the wants of the community. Today, we are not sure what the early opera house looked like. This drawing of the opera house are from l895 newspaper, and the theater had already been redecorated twice. The opera house seated 2,000 people: 900 on the first level, 600 in the first gallery and 500 on benches in the third, or "peanut" gallery. The dome was called the finest feature of the building. Backstage the theater was equipped to present the most up-to-date shows. At first, scenery was moved along grooves in the floor. Later, a fly loft above the stage was built so scenery could be hung or "flown in" from above the stage. From the day of its opening, the Collingwood always presented a wide variety of community and professional events.
Community meetings and celebrations were held. Here is a drawing of the banquet to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone for the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge. A young Andrew Carnegie was there. The confectionery model of the bridge you see in the drawing attracted more attention than anything else at the dinner. Political rallies for local, state and national candidates were held. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Poughkeepsie's favorite - Theodore Roosevelt appeared.
For many years Poughkeepsie High School held its graduations at the Opera House. Local musical groups performed, including the Symphony Society. The Poughkeepsie Lyceum held an annual series of lectures. Speakers included Mark Twain. Charles Hickok, owner of Hickok Music Co., presented classical musicians, including Polish patriot and pianist Paderewski - America's first classical heart throb! A Vassar College student fainted at one of his performances. Mr. Hickok also presented the Boston Symphony Orchestra at least three times. A student wrote later in his life that when he talked to Hickok the day after a performance and asked if the orchestra could play next year, Hickok replied "Next year? I lost more money this time than ever before. I lost over five hundred dollars.... People won't support me to the extent of buying the two-fifty seats. You might think the town was poverty-struck!"
There was music for everyone. John Philip Sousa's Band made at least seven appearances, always to large and enthusiastic audiences. Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas, "The Mikado" and "Pinafore" were popular. Audiences still enjoy them today. From the first year, Shakespeare's plays were performed. The famous Shakspearian actor, Edwin Booth played in "Hamlet" and "Richard III".
Sarah Bernhardt appeared. Michael Baumbusch was a special officer in the "peanut gallery" for forty years, he said. "... you could see anything for ten cents, maybe twenty five. That was the highest. The gallery seats were just benches,...but you could see and hear beautifully. Yes, it was called the peanut gallery, because they did eat a lot of peanuts up there. But they were very nice about it. They wouldn't crack them while the play was on." The Collingwood was a popular place for one night tryouts of new Broadway bound shows. Helen Hayes appeared in a preview of "Bab", her first starring role. Two shows starring Ethel Barrymore, "Lady Frederick" and "Her Sister" were also previewed.
Theatrical producer William Brady tested many shows in Poughkeepsie. Brady is reported to have said that if a show goes over in Poughkeepsie, it will go over anywhere. Opera House audiences first saw screen presentations with the stereopticon used to project slides onto a screen. Later audiences thrilled to early moving pictures like Edwin J. Hadley's presentation of "The Great Train Robbery" Zukor's Famous Players silent films were shown. They were the first films to be as long as a play. James O'Neill starred in "The Count of Monte Cristo", which earlier opera house patrons had seen live on stage. Theda Bara appeared in "Salome". Lillian Gish starred in D.W. Griffith's "Way Down East", another story Poughkeepsie audiences had enjoyed live.
The Bardavon is fortunate because for almost 50 years, the ownership and management of the opera house was remarkably stable. When James Collingwood died suddenly in 1874, he was buried in Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery. His family retained ownership of the theater for the next forty years. "Ben" Sweet was manager for more than thirty years. Mr. Sweet was known by actors and actresses all over the country. After James Collingwood's estate was settled, George Millard represented the Collingwood family's interest in the theater. His first and second wives were daughters of James Collingwood. George Millard succeeded "Ben" Sweet as manager. Millard's third wife was an actress, Emma Fossett. He met her when she was performing with a repertory company at the Opera House. At Millard's death in 1916, ownership of the opera house was to remain with the Collingwood family; however, Emma Fossett Millard challenged the will, and after litigation, and an interim owner, the opera house was sold in 1918 to a group of Poughkeepsie's leading businessmen, led by Ely Elting. They decided that the Collingwood and the name "opera house" had become obsolete. Within the brick walls of the old theatre, a palace of amusement was built to be the pride of Poughkeepsie. The architect for the renovation was William Beardsley. Franklin Roosevelt said of him, "He knows more supervisors in New York state than any other man."
The theatre reopened January 1, 1923 as the Bardavon Theatre. The auditorium looked much like it does today. A favorite feature of the new theater was the procenium painting showing Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon, seated in meditative pose on the bank of the Avon River. In the inner lobby, there was a fountain instead of a concession stand. The outer lobby, where the ticket booth was located, was decorated in the same neo-classic design as the auditorium.
The Bardavon opened with the play "Mike Angelo", a "try-out" previous to its Broadway opening. The leading actor said that he had never played in a better theater, nor before a better audience. George Campbell, Mayor of poughkeepsie and General Contractor for the theatre's renovations, spoke at the opening. For the first two years, the Bardavon featured a variety of live and film entertainment. The Denishawn Dancers with Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn and a young Martha Graham appeared. There were also stock companies, vaudeville and feature silent films including Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments." In May, 1925 the Bardavon was leased by Paramount. A vertical sign was added to the marquee to make the theater more visible. The new management brought in world famous, B.F. Keith's vaudeville - George Burns and Gracie Allen appeared. The Bardavon became a combination house - vaudeville and a film. A Wurlitzer Theater Organ was installed. It was played for the first time on Monday, April 9, 1928. Sound movies arrived at the Bardavon in January, 1929 along with approval from the Common Council for movies to be shown on Sunday.
In 1943, Paramount's northeast subsidiary, Netco, purchased the Bardavon Theatre and the office building in front of it. In 1947, the lobbies and marquee were modernized, and today, they look much like they did then. Paramount and its successor, ABC, owned the Bardavon almost until it closed as a movie theater.
During most of its 50 years as a movie house, the Bardavon was paramount's A house in Poughkeepsie. Important movies opened first at the Bardavon. In 1940, "Gone with the Wind" played for two weeks. Seating for the evening shows was by advance reservation and cost $1.10. Later films included "The Wizard of Oz", Richard Burton's, "Hamlet", "The Sound of Music" and "The Godfather" As more and more movie theaters opened in suburban shopping centers, downtown poughkeepsie movie houses closed.
The Bardavon Theatre was the last to close as a movie house in September, 1975. It was to be torn down and replaced by a parking lot. The Dutchess County Arts Council and Poughkeepsie residents, formed the Concerned Citizens to Save the Bardavon and immediately got the Urban Renewal Plan changed and The Citizens Group then obtained a lease on the theatre. The Bardavon 1869 Opera House a Not-for-profit corporation was formed. Retired IBM engineer, Stephen Dunwell was named chairman of the Board and volunteer General Manager along with, his wife Julia , who became Director of programs and publicity, thus commencing a three year period of revitalization of the theatre as a performing arts center. To help to secure its future, the Bardavon was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. By 1979 the theatre provided full seasons of community and professional shows. A popular program for school children was in place. Strong support from the city Mayor and community had been developed. It was than possible to purchase the building with city, state and local contributions. In September 1979, a professional Executive Director, Robert Cole was hired and took over operations. Since 1980 more than $2 million dollars has been spent to improve the theater.
Today, the Bardavon is a lively center for the performing arts presenting a variety of professional performances, such as "The Hubbard Street Dancers". Wynton Marsalis has played as a guest performer with the Hudson Valley philharmonic, and also with "Stars of Lincoln Center Jazz". There are still a few reminders of the old Collingwood. Backstage, scenery is flown using the hemp system first installed in the opera house, and its crowning jewel - the original 1869 dome - is still in place above the present dome. The Wurlitzer organ designed for the Bardavon has been reinstalled. The spirits of the Collingwood Opera House and the Bardavon Theatre live on in the Bardavon Opera House, enriching it as a performance space and a living history museum.
© 2013 Bardavon/UPAC
Last modified: 2009-08-06 11:44:35