Opera House - looking West on Lafayette Street - 1885
Back in the Gay Nineties Uticans turned out in their finest to enjoy the leading Thespians of the day on the stage of the Utica Opera House. Broadway productions on their way to the metropolis and leading road attractions made Utica a regular stop to put on their shows at the opera house, generally at a top price of $1.50.
The Utica Opera House opened on October 16th, 1871 and was located on the northeast corner of Lafayette and Washington streets next to where the Hotel Utica is located today. Patrons ascended a wide stairway to reach the box-office and orchestra seats, one flight up. It was necessary to climb two flights to get into the balcony and three flights to go “rush” in the gallery, separated from the balcony by a railing.
A magnificent prismatic chandelier with its one hundred jets shed a softened light over the whole of the auditorium. Almost seventeen hundred elegantly upholstered chairs were provided for the spectators.
When Sam S. Shubert took over the lease of the old Opera House on Lafayette Street, a new and even greater era in theatrical entertainment began. During the summer of 1900 the Opera House was torn down until little but the side walls remained intact. Within these was built the Majestic Theater, a dream of splendor.
There were two entrances, one off Lafayette Street, leading to the ground floor and balcony, and another from Washington Street, leading to the gallery on the third level and to the gallerette on the fourth level. The gallerette was a unique feature of the house. It was on the fourth floor and immediately in front of the seats in the gallery. There was a single row of seats in the gallerette, seating 75 people and standing room for as many more.
Opera House Interior
From the main entrance on Lafayette Street three sets of double doors opened into a lobby floored with mosaic tile and wainscoted with Italian marble. The lobby continued upward through two floors and contained two large French block plate mirrors. On the second floor was a balcony looking down into the lobby. This was intended for use as a promenade for the balcony proper.
The balcony was 50 feet deep front to rear and extended across the building. It was finished in maroon and green, and had 425 seats. The ceiling, 57 feet high, was frescoed with figures typical of the dawn and of the histrionic art in bright colors. Stucco work enhanced these decorations, some of it representing figures in mythology. The gallery, which was one floor higher, could seat 500.
The boxes were twelve in number, six on each side and were entered from the first floor. No two boxes on a side were on the same level and this gave the occupants of each box the unobstructed view of the stage. Above the boxes a number of cupids were placed. The opera chairs were upholstered in Nile green tapestry.
There were fifteen complete sets of scenery, which could be raised or lowered from the rigging loft without the shifting which was a noticeable feature of the old Opera House. From the opening of the new theater, the employees were dressed in uniforms of green, with gold braid and plain gold buttons.
Majestic & Orpheum - Looking West on Lafayette Street
The Majestic furnished a great array of attractions, the greater part of the best contemporary theatrical offerings of the time.
When the Majestic Theater was built, the space over the stores on the northeast corner of Washington Street was fitted up as an auditorium, long known as “Assembly Hall.”
The entrance was from a flight of stairs from Washington Street. These led to the auditorium itself, underneath a balcony. Paul F. Kallies did the decorative work. A series of clusters of American beauty roses were painted on the ceiling in the center of the room, and an allegorical picture representing comedy and tragedy occupied the space over the proscenium arch and extended up the coved ceiling. The only exposed wall was on the Lafayette Street side, and light during the day was obtained from the number of large windows there. In this hall, Wilmer & Vincent began their long successful career as theatrical agents and proprietors.
Sidney Wilmer and Walter Vincent were vaudeville actors when the former came to visit his sister, Mrs. E. W. Wright, who resided in the Olbiston apartments early in 1900. During his visit, he received a proposition from Seymour D. Latcher, agent for Owens Brothers, owners of the Majestic Block, to take over the Assembly Hall and operate it as a vaudeville house. They took a lease at $2,000 rental per year and opened it on January 19, 1901 as “The Orpheum”, enjoying great initial success.
Wilmer & Vincent continued to operate the Orpheum until May 1, 1915, when it was taken over as a motion picture house by William P. Donlon. He was a native of Amsterdam, who came to Utica in 1907 at the age of 16; purchased the candy concession at the Majestic and in a few years was assistant manager of the Majestic. The Orpheum continued to enjoy a popular patronage until 1917. About five o'clock in the morning of March 20th, 1917, fire extensively damaged the building and it was not thereafter used as a theater. A second floor motion picture theater was no longer acceptable because of the danger of fire.