A Trip Through Time at the Smith Opera House

This past weekend we had the distinct privilege of obtaining a much clarified picture of an American institution we had long known and written about and occasionally experienced: the small town opera house.

Like so many terms associated with show business, “opera house” can be confusing and require clarification, for it can have multiple meanings. The specific type of venue I have in mind would be more aptly described as a playhouse, theatre or, in modern parlance, a performing arts center. The latter really is the best description. Then, as now, these venues booked diverse and often major touring shows, acts, and presentations for single performances or very short runs, and also did double duty in hosting local events. One gathers that they’re known as opera houses for a reason I wrote about extensively in No Applause and elsewhere. Vocal performance and music were considered the noblest of the performing arts, and so were much more widely appreciated amongst the still very religious 19th century American public. Jenny Lind’s triumphant American tour in 1850 broke the ice. From concerts, the kinds of acceptable productions pretty swiftly expanded to include full operas, straight theatre (especially moral melodramas at first), musical comedy, variety theatre (vaudeville, burlesque, minstrelsy), lectures, sporting events (boxing, wrestling) and much else, really any type of thing people will pay money to see. Thus, this kind of venue is quite distinct from what you might assume from the name, a hall that only presents operas, typically only found in large cities.

These old opera houses can be found in towns all over America, from sea to shining sea. I’ve had the honor of speaking in a couple of them in New York State: the Hudson Opera House (now known as Hudson Hall), and the Fredonia Opera House, which we wrote about here. On Saturday, we got the grand tour at the Smith Opera House in Geneva, a town centrally located atop Seneca Lake, an hour from Rochester, Syracuse, and Ithaca (home of Cornell University) depending on which direction you travel. It’s also a mere 20 minutes from Seneca Falls, the birthplace of American feminism.*

Anyway, traveling among these various towns (close together but not too close) has assisted my picture of the trouper’s life immeasurably, and how much easier it was to be a touring performer in the eastern U.S. than the western states, with these short hops between towns.

Built in 1894 by local philanthropist William Smith (for whom the sister institution of nearby Hobart College is also named), like most old American theatres, the Smith has had many names, functions and incarnations over the past century-plus. Initially an opera house of the type just described, then a cinema starting in 1931, then a restoration to something like its original function starting around 50 years later. It has also been known as The Geneva Theatre, Schine Theatre (part of a chain), and Smith’s Opera House.

The likeness of Edwin Booth scowls meditatively above the Smith’s archway entrance. Booth had died a year before the Smith opened, so he was not among the countless eminences to grace its stage, but I was beyond excited to learn who HAD. In 1994, the Smith launched a centennial restoration project. As part of the effort, they produced a commemorative booklet penned by a Hobart/Wm. Smith professor named Charles McNally, and, man oh man, what a trove it proved to be. I cracked it open with modest expectations; it proved to be a Who’s Who of late 19th and early 20th century theatre. I’ve written about a great many of the folks who performed and produced there, so it gives me great pleasure now to relate them to you. (The names that have no links at present are ones I’ll be posting about in coming months). These are far from all of the artists who played the Smith from 1894 through 1929; just the ones I know the most about:

James O’Neill in The Count of Monte Cristo

Magician Harry Kellar

The Four Cohans and Gus Williams in April Fool

Richard Golden in Old Jed Prouty

Charles Hoyt’s A Trip to Chinatown

The Hanlon Brothers in Fantasma


Shore Acres by James A. Herne

Numerous productions by Charles Frohman

The Byrne Brothers in Eight Bells

Al G. Field’s Minstrels

Primrose and West’s Minstrels

Otis Skinner

Hogan’s Alley

Rossow’s Midgets

A stage version of Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson

Henshaw and Ten Broeck

Joseph Hart in The Tarrytown Widow

Victor Herbert’s band

Cissy Fitzgerald

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

William Gillette, in Secret Service

John Philip Sousa’s band

The Francis Wilson Opera Company

Several William Brady productions, including Way Down East (later made into a movie by D.W. Griffith)

Joseph Jefferson as Rip Van Winkle

Vogel’s Minstrels

Edward E. Rice and The Show Girl

Ten Nights in a Bar Room (I produced and acted in a version of this old melodrama at Brooklyn’s Waterfront Barge Museum in 2007.)

Shaw’s Candida (then only about seven years old)

Dorothy Vernon of Hadden Hall, with Bertha Galland

Madame Modjeska as Lady MacBeth

Mary Mannering in Glorious Betsy

J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (also then quite new)

Classmates by William de Mille and Margaret Turnbull

Ellen Terry

Alma Gluck

David Belasco, The Wanderer

Brewster’s Millions

Many productions by Ben Greet

Polly of the Circus

Walter Damrosch and New York Symphony Orchestra

Edison films

Peg O’ My Heart by J. Hartley Manners

Geraldine Farrar in Joan the Woman

Albert Spalding

Allen McQuhae

The Bat by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood

Walter Hampden in Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice

Alice Brady in Forever After

Jane Cowl in Smilin’ Through

Shuffle Along

DeWolf Hopper and his Gilbert and Sullivan Company doing Pirates of Penzance

A Frieda Hempel tribute to Jenny Lind

Channing Pollock’s The Fool, presented by the Selwyn Company

The (Isadora) Duncan Dancers

Columbia Wheel Burlesque

Abie’s Irish Rose

Frank Bacon’s Lightnin’

Other interesting events include a 1901 memorial service for President William McKinley, who’d been assassinated two hours away at the Buffalo World’s Fair; an Abraham Lincoln centenary celebration; and two conventions of the New York State Women’s Suffrage Association. As we mentioned, Seneca Falls is just 20 minutes away. Susan B. Anthony and Emmeline Pankhurst spoke there. Harriet Tubman, who lived in nearby Auburn, attended Suffrage Events there. Hey! I just remembered! It happens to be International Women’s Day as I type this!

At the opposite end of the progressivism spectrum, the local Elks chapter (whose headquarters was right around the corner) put on an amateur minstrel show there as a benefit. Look for an upcoming post about the connection between American fraternal organizations and blackface minstrelsy. Obviously we don’t endorse or approve of this kind of entertainment, but it is woven into the story of American culture like a bad filament. I do find it intriguing that abolitionism and blackface throve side by side in this region and elsewhere. That’s the American story in a nutshell.

The vaudeville team of Conroy and Fox appeared at the Smith in Hot Tamales. I don’t know if this Fox is related to the one in Fox and Ward, but that’s Conroy and Ward on the sheet music cover above, which I found personally meaningful because I made my tour of the Smith with my son Charlie, and have even sung him a version of that song! Full disclosure: Charlie’s mom runs the Smith. It is by her good graces that we bring you this post. Here they are in situ in the balcony:

Look at the gorgeous carpet pattern. The theatre restoration took a very sensible two-pronged strategy. Most of the lobby and auditorium reflect the art deco aesthetics of its early days as a cinema; whereas the façade and the stage itself preserve and reflect the original function as a venue for live performing arts. Just some odds and ends from various perspectives that caught my eye.

This clever mural merges the idea of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase with a New Orleans “second line” parade:

When I tour old theatres, I always ask about ghosts-in-residence, and the Smith does indeed report one: the spirit of an adolescent girl who died in the vicinity and likes to move things about and pull mischievous pranks. In addition to being one of the birthplaces of the women’s right’s movement and abolitionism, this part of the country was also a hotbed of spiritualism in its day, and the eponymous Mr. Smith is said to have held weekly seances!

But our primary concern is LIVE performance. The Smith’s second incarnation as a theatre and concert hall is now about 40 years old. One of the first performers at the current Smith back in the early ’80s was The Amazing Kreskin!

The Smith’s official website is here. Check out my review of the show I saw there, Cirque International, here. And go here for some of the other stuff I saw in Geneva (it’s not a lot, but it was charming).

* It’s one of the reasons I feel increasingly connected to this region. I am related to Elizabeth Cady Stanton through my grandmother Ruth Cady. I’m a New Englander with 400 year old American roots. Many relatives migrated to Western New York in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Through my grandfather Bob Herindeen I am related to the family who operated Geneva’s Herendeen Manufacturing Company, whom I wrote about here, because one of them became a Broadway performer. My (5th) great grandfather Jonathan Bugbee was one of the first settlers in Stockton, near Chautauqua, even farther west.

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To learn more about early show business, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville FamousFor more on early cinema please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.