The House that Smith Built

There is a moment when the tour guide squeezes thumb and index finger together — almost touching — to emphasize that in 1979, the building was this close to being torn down and turned into a parking lot. The gesture typically elicits a priceless response of horror and incredulity that hammers home the degree of hard work that has been poured into the Smith Opera House over the past 23 years. Today’s patrons find it hard to imagine the beauty and grandeur of the 108-year-old theater no longer existing.

As recently as 10 years ago, Geneva’s once glorious Smith Opera House had become a shadow of its former self. Gone were the days of standing room only for Hollywood’s latest all-star offering. The peeling paint and dripping plaster in the auditorium, more duct tape on the seats than upholstery, and an unreliable heating system — forcing those few hardy souls who braved the winter elements to attend a show to wrap themselves in blankets — had all taken their toll and marked the decline of what had once been the largest theater in central New York and the “flagship theater” of Schine Enterprises.

With the bustling landmark seeing over 50,000 visitors last season — an increase of more than 12,000 from the year before — it’s easy to forget how much effort has gone into restoring Geneva’s “Crown Jewel.”

Since the building’s centennial in 1994, the Finger Lakes Regional Arts Council, the theater’s owner, curator and benefactor, has raised nearly $3 million to renovate and restore the only year-round performing arts venue in the northern Finger Lakes.

Projects successfully undertaken include the repairing and re-covering of all 1,438 seats and re-spacing of those in the main auditorium, the installation of new carpeting to match the original 1931 pattern and manufacture, the removal of the aging exterior marquee and the repair of the outdoor stone and terra cotta facade, the rebuilding of fire escapes, the renovation of second and third floor offices, and the restoration of the original historic store fronts. Heating, plumbing and electrical systems as well as the 70-year-old stage rigging, were upgraded to today’s specifications. Additionally, the concession stand was redesigned and relocated to a less obtrusive location in the lobby, lobby-level handicapped-accessible rest rooms were built, a Steinway grand piano was acquired (and later signed by Billy Joel when he played here in 1996), main and side glass entry doors to better reflect the original open air feeling of the box office were installed, basement rest rooms were expanded, and a lower level community cabaret, serving wine courtesy of Prejean Winery and beer on tap was established.

In that time, Barenaked Ladies, Bela Fleck, the Black Crowes, Tracy Byrd, Collin Raye, Ralph Nader, Elie Weisel, Natalie Merchant, Paul Taylor Dance, Chuck Mangione, Blues Traveler, Bob Marley’s Wailers, the David Grisman Quintet, and Dave Matthews, along with hundreds of other speakers, singers and musicians have appeared on stage at The Smith. More than 40,000 children and families have enjoyed the finest in curriculum-based, touring theatrical productions during the school day and on weekends. Over 400 of the finest foreign and independent films along with the best studio blockbusters have been shown on The Smith’s silver screen — the largest in the region. And hundreds of community events from high school graduations to dance recitals to weddings and receptions to corporate Christmas parties have been hosted at the versatile landmark.

The Smith’s successful restoration has been trumpeted by regional leaders and area politicians and is viewed as a triumphant partnership between community and government (the close to $3 million it took to revitalize the opera house was funded primarily by local dollars). But that success carries a responsibility. A venue the size of the Opera House will always need upgrades. Creating a funding source that will prevent the need for a future $3-million restoration is vital.

To that end, the Finger Lakes Regional Arts Council’s volunteer board of directors is launching a $2 million endowment campaign to enable them to maintain the facility and supplement operations — ensuring future generations the unique opportunity to experience live performing arts in an historic setting. A 24-page, full-color endowment brochure was recently published and distributed to patrons of the organization’s annual fund-raiser dinner, the Starlight Ball. Copies are being circulated to attornies and estate planners throughout the region. To date, approximately $200,000 has been donated or pledged to the endowment.

With the restoration coming to an end, the organization can’t help but reflect on the past while also looking to the future — the future of the opera house, the future of Geneva, and the future of the performing arts in upstate New York.

For two years, an ad hoc coalition of public, private, and civic groups has been weighing the viability of a cultural center to augment or complement The Smith as part of an artistically revitalized downtown.

Recently organized as the Geneva Arts Development Corporation, its mission is to promote the arts in the city of Geneva, in order to improve the quality of life for its residents, revitalize downtown and enhance its appeal to commerce and tourism. To accomplish this goal, they will “make use of Geneva’s historical and architectural significance, rich cultural diversity, distinctive lakefront location, exceptional educational facilities, and the unique Smith Opera House.”

Built in 1894 at a cost of $39,000 by philanthropist and businessman William Smith, “Smith’s Opera House” presented a wide variety of performing arts including theater, opera, musicals, minstrel shows, burlesque, vaudeville, orchestras, bands, and singers, as well as church and memorial services, sporting events and lectures. It enjoyed over 30 years of prosperity and introduced some of the biggest show business names of the era to local audiences.

James O’Neill, father of future Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Eugene O’Neill, starred in the opening night production of The Count of Monte Christo on October 29, 1894. Young Eugene, as the story goes, had a seat in the front row and slept through the theater’s inaugural performance. George M. Cohan, John Philip Sousa, Freida Hemple, Alma Gluck, and Walter Hampden are just some of the stars who performed on stage during the theater’s early years.

In 1906, Smith gave the theater to Hobart College to help endow its new women’s college. Declining revenues saw it leased to an outside operator in 1919 when it was renamed “The Strand.” In 1921, Hobart and William Smith Colleges sold the theater to Benjamin Gutstadt who marketed it as the Smith Opera House.

Schine’s Amusement Co. purchased the building in 1927, and in 1931, completely renovated it into an “atmospheric” movie palace. Architect Victor Rigaumount’s interior design incorporated a combination of art deco, baroque, and Victorian influences. The sun set slowly on the bronze walls, spiraled gold and silver “rope” columns and ornate cartouches flanked the proscenium arch, busts of Beethoven and Moliere rested in backlit niches, a cloud machine cast floating images on the blue dome, and stars twinkled overhead, creating the illusion of a Moorish courtyard at twilight.

“Schine’s Geneva Theater” flourished until the advent of television and the exodus from downtown areas in the 1950s and ’60s. In 1978, with deteriorating box office business, a leaky roof, moisture in the building decaying the walls, a broken down heating system and extreme temperature changes that caused damage, the theater closed.

When it reopened a few months later as a not-for-profit organization, The Smith began its 25-year restoration journey. It stands today — beautifully restored — as a 108-year-old symbol of the community’s commitment to the performing arts. The success of the recently launched endowment campaign will guarantee that The Smith will continue to entertain audiences of all ages for the next 108 years.

by Kevin Schoonover
Kevin Schoonover is the executive director of the Smith Opera House.

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