Historical society hosts talk on Oneonta Theatre's past, future

Sarah Eames | The Daily Star Patrice Macaluso, president of Friends of the Oneonta Theatre, discusses proposals for the theater during a presentation Sunday at the Greater Oneonta Historical Society.

The Greater Oneonta Historical Society welcomed members of the public Sunday to attend a recording of the latest installment of “Kitchen Table Conversations,” an audio-recorded series with members of the community on various topics concerning the area’s history.

Gary Wickham and Alan Donovan, members of the organization, hosted Patrice Macaluso, an associate professor of theater at SUNY Oneonta, to discuss the history of the Oneonta Theatre.

Macaluso curated the museum’s current exhibit, “The Oneonta Theatre: Reflecting Popular Culture Since 1897.”

The exhibit, on display until Aug. 3, features movie posters, photos and playbills from early 20th-century shows and other mementos donated to the collection by local residents. Excerpts from “Oneonta Letter,” a featured column in the weekly Morris Chronicle newspaper, detailed the construction progress from 1897 until its completion in 1898.

Older than all the theaters on Broadway except for one, the Oneonta Theatre was built in the midst of an economic and cultural boom largely brought on by the construction of a new railway line between Binghamton and Schenectady, with a full-service station in Oneonta, according to Donovan.

Among the theater’s most popular shows were “Womanless Weddings,” burlesque shows hosted by philanthropic organizations such as the Oneonta Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, which would donate the proceeds to local charitable causes. Local civic leaders and business executives dressed in drag would flash their garters, adjust their undergarments and kiss both men and women in the audience, Donovan said.

The theater also housed part of the collection now belonging to the Huntington Memorial Library before it was relocated to the mansion in 1919, and was the site of Oneonta High School graduation ceremonies for more than half a century. Graduates would process to the theater from the school, then located on Academy Street, every year until the new school was erected on East Street in the 1960s.

At one time the theater was managed by the Schine Theatre Chain, one of the largest networks of independent theaters in the country, according to Donovan. The Schine brothers owned hundreds of theaters across six states until a 1959 ruling by the federal Department of Justice found the company to be in violation of antitrust laws and forced it to sell 39 of its theaters, including the Oneonta Theatre.

Harold DeGraw, a longtime regional manager under the Schine chain, purchased the property in 1966 to prevent its demolition during the Urban Renewal era. While the site was saved, DeGraw was forced to replace the facade and marquee to bring the building in compliance with the city’s modern design requirements.

Kevin Herrick, owner of Lettis Auction Service, recalled memories from his time working at the theater as a teenager. He said he was hired by DeGraw as a concessionaire.

“Harold was a taskmaster, and now that I run my own business, I realize I probably have a similar style,” he said. “He would get really good movies for little Oneonta.”

The theater hosted the world premiere of “Grease” during the summer of 1978, Herrick said. The line stretched down the block hours before doors opened, and by showtime it stretched past the Christian Science Church all the way to Watkins Avenue.

“Grease” ran for 13 or 14 weeks, he said, and concession sales would bring in nearly $1,000 each night, even though the most expensive item cost no more than $1.50.

Tickets were sold for $2.50 apiece, Herrick said, and “you could get a box of popcorn for a quarter, but you had to pay extra for butter.”

Herrick shared memories of the old dressing rooms backstage, some with stars still on the doors and old vanities, makeup mirrors and powder jars inside, and recalled escorting Daniel Patrick Moynihan — then a United States senator from Pindars Corners — and his family to the balcony.

He said he also worked in the projection room, splicing together 20-minute reels of film to feed the two projectors.

“It was almost a surgical procedure,” he said; requiring tape and special tools.

Herrick recalled DeGraw’s “night owl” features, which were often racier movies, some rated X.

“I probably wasn’t old enough to attend, but there I was running the projectors,” he said.

The theater changed hands a few more times and was placed on the National Historic Register in 2002. In 2008, the property was purchased by Tom Cormier, who leased it to the Friends of the Oneonta Theatre, a nonprofit formed the same year, according to Macaluso, the organization’s president.

The group hosted programs in conjunction with the Upper Catskill Community Council on the Arts — an organization now rebranded as the Community Arts Network of Oneonta — for several years before Cormier transformed the theater into a “rock club/gentleman’s club,” Macaluso said.

She said she and her fellow board members found the prospect “hard to deal with,” but helped gut the theater for its transformation, tearing out seating to make room for a dance floor.

The building, empty since 2017, is once again for sale, Macaluso said.

The group pursued grant funding through the state's Downtown Revitalization Initiative to conduct a study to determine “if we were to save the theater, what would it look like and could we do it?” she said.

“Historic preservation is tied to economic development,” Macaluso said.

One of the primary motives for preservation is the theater’s acoustics, she said.

“In the world of theater, there’s deep lore about what works. Acoustics are so important — it’s the bones of the building,” she said. “If a building’s got acoustics from the 19th century — before electricity — you want it.”

A five-year plan was developed from the study, detailing options for the theater’s continued operation. The most feasible options include operating in partnership with the Foothills Performing Arts and Civic Center or with either of Oneonta’s two colleges, Macaluso said, but the theater’s future remains uncertain.

“We’re at a crossroads again. We have lots of enthusiasm for the arts, but not a big donor base,” Macaluso said. “We’re a modest town. Can we do it? Are we too small to keep this thing alive?”

Listen to full episodes of “Kitchen Table Conversations” at libguides.oneonta.edu/conversations.

Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at seames@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.