Cortland County celebrates two historic anniversaries this year: Cortland Repertory Theatre (CRT), a professional summer theatre, presents their 35th season and the Little York Pavilion, CRT’s home, begins a new century. Both are located in Dwyer Memorial Park just north of Homer. CRT has continued to grow in attendance and popularity, but the history of the Pavilion is as bumpy as the roller coaster which was once located nearby.
“It’s a oner,” said Mary Ann Kane, executive director of the Cortland County Historical Society, as she described the building. “There is no other building like it in the country.”
Built in 1906 by the Cortland Traction Co., the pavilion served as a destination to increase trolley use. Little York boasts a small but idyllic lake located in the northern portion of Cortland County, where people picnicked and spent leisurely afternoons. Surrounded by farms, a school and a railroad depot, the lakeside served as the only recreation area between Syracuse and Binghamton. Cephas B. Barker of Tully is believed to be the designer as well as the builder of the pavilion.
Open verandas on both floors offered sweeping views of the lake and the surrounding countryside. With a restaurant and a dance hall, the Pavilion enjoyed immense popularity through the end of World War I. Patrick “Patsy” Conroy from Homer, one of the future founders of the Syracuse Symphony, and his band were among the popular performers. As the automobile replaced the trolley, the traction company, by then known as the New York Power Corporation, abandoned the property in 1932. (They later became part of Niagara Mohawk, now National Grid.)
The property lay dormant until 1938 when, at the urging of the Little York Garden Club, the Cortland County Board of Supervisors purchased approximately 85 acres for $7,500 to create a county park. However, it wasn’t until 1950 that County Highway Superintendent William Dwyer began making serious renovations. Dwyer was later honored by having the park named after him. Park concessionaires offered rides, including a roller coaster, motorized swings and a carousel. There was also a small zoo with reindeer, monkeys and peacocks. Bathrooms were added to the Pavilion and an unstable fireplace and chimney were removed.
In the late 1950s, concessionaires Don McRae and Pat Kiley introduced rock-and-roll dances to the Pavilion, which featured a disc jockey from Syracuse and an area band. Following a gang rumble after one dance, which involved numerous arrests and injuries, the concessionaires decided to keep the dances more local and hired area promoter Jim Pantas to run the program. Pantas arranged buses to transport teenagers from Cortland to the pavilion. He offered a mix of local bands, including Donnie and the Dukes, Ronnie and the Redcaps, and Bobby Comstock and the Counts, with national acts such as the Coasters, Little Anthony and the Imperials, and Gary U.S. Bonds. Pantas continued the program until 1965 when it became economically unfeasible.
The Pavilion sat empty again until 1971 when Dr. James Palmer, associate director of theatre at SUNY Cortland, and David Yaman, a local real estate developer, created Cortland Repertory Theatre. With the cooperation of the County Board of Supervisors, CRT rescued the pavilion once again from disrepair. They replaced the second-floor stage (which accommodated the bands of the past) with risers on three sides for seating. The acting area is the former dance floor with seating surrounding it, which creates an intimate atmosphere.
CRT opened its first play on July 5, 1972, and has been going strong ever since. Using both professional and local talent, the theatre presents a mixture of comedies and musicals over the summer months. After a recent successful capital campaign, CRT added an elevator for handicapped accessibility and an upgraded air conditioning system. The stage has been renamed the Edward Jones Playhouse to pay tribute to a significant contributor to the campaign.
Performances in this year’s 35th season include “Five Guys Named Moe,” a musical by Clarke Peters featuring Louis Jordan’s greatest hits; “It Runs in the Family,” a farce by Ray Cooney; Agatha Christie’s thrilling “Murder on the Nile”; Irving Berlin’s classic musical “Annie Get Your Gun”; “Moonlight and Magnolias,” a hilarious Hollywood comedy about “Gone With the Wind”; and “I Left My Heart,” a salute to the music of Tony Bennett.
“We feel great about the upcoming season and the restoration projects we’re doing for the Pavilion,” said current producing artistic director Kerby Thompson. “The Central New York community is incredibly supportive of the theatre and loves the beautiful setting of the park and the Pavilion. It’s truly a unique experience to visit.”
Several events are planned to celebrate the anniversaries throughout the summer. For more information about the pavilion and CRT, check the website at www.cortlandrep.org.
by David Blatchley
David Blatchley is a freelance writer/photographer from Cortland.