Taken from the Cortland County Historical Society Bulletin, Spring 1996
Cited by city newspapers as the “finest public building ever erected in Cortland,” the Opera House on Groton Avenue, just west of the Cortland House hotel, which straddled the corner of Main and Groton, could boast of subscribers whose names were at the heart of economic progress here in the 1880’s. Benedict, Beard, Beaudry, Duell, Fitzgerald, Edgcomb, Hollister, Jewett, Kellogg, Mahan, Peck, Sager, Sanders, Squires, Tisdale, Vosburgh, Walrad, Kinney, Wickwire—who would doubt that with men like these investing in the entertainment venture, that it would be successful.
The architect was J.H. Kirby of Syracuse, at age 40 already well known in the country. His other designs in the city included the Second National Bank (67 Main Street), the Wallace Block (northwest corner of Main and Court Streets), and the Lawrence J. Fitzgerald house (today a college sorority) at 39 Tompkins Street.
May 20, 1884 the contract for digging the cellar was made with Jeremiah Davern for $830 and work was promptly begun. The building lot was 258 feet deep, with a frontage of 63 feet. A ten feet lane separated it from the hotel, which was also under construction after a devastating fire.
The building’s exterior was described as modern classic, with a large gable, side brackets and large round arched windows forming its most striking features. Three sets of double doors provided entry to the lobby. Then through the foyer into the auditorium with its 62 by 35 ft. stage and Queen Anne-styled, two tiered boxes. Both the main floor and the gallery seated 500.
Forty feet above the stage were suspended the various draperies and borders providing backgrounds for outdoor and interior scenes. A large cylinder, working on a new principle, rolled the drop curtain from the top instead of the bottom, in four and a half revolutions. Six feet nine inches in circumference and at 1000 pounds, the wooden cylinder was the largest in the state, outside of New York City.
The gala events, the stars not only of drama, but of minstrel shows and comic opera, the home talent extravaganzas, and the road companies left memories almost unbelievable, and certainly unforgettable. The opening performance, with a packed house in full evening attire, was a Shakespearean production starring Margaret Mather, a Broadway favorite of the day. The well-known Otis Skinner was the leading man. Clara Kellogg, the contralto, was also one of the first artists to perform there.
Large companies, sometimes 40 or 50 strong, appeared at the theater, the best of Broadway being none too good for Cortland audiences. The groups traveled by train, bringing their own costumes, props and scenery.
The famous Mahan conventions, musicals staged for years by Alexander Mahan, were produced there. These festivals lasted a week in June. Along with a score of visiting artists, choruses of 200-300 voices performed. Hundreds flocked to the city for the week.
Both Madames Melba and Schuman Heink headed the bills. Staying at the Cortland House, special linen was placed in Madame Melba’s room. Recognizing the fact, Madame took one of her own towels and laid it over the embroidered bureau cover so as not to stain it with rouge and paint while she made up her appearance.
Famed stock companies performed with such actors as Tyrone Power (Sr.), William Faversham, “The Great Blackstone,” Laurette Taylor, Victor Moore, James J. Corbett, and Tom Thumb. Plays such as “Girl of the Golden West,” “Little Minister,” and “East Lynn;” musical extravaganzas as “Naughty Marietta,” “The Merry Widow,” and “Princess Pat;” and operas “Robin Hood,” “Aida,” and “Madame Butterfly” filled the house.
Unforgettable was the annual production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” with little Eva emerging in the final scene from behind curtain after curtain of gauze, and the inevitable company parade during the noon hour through the city streets with band and blood hounds.
There were hundreds of minstrel shows produced by local organizations. When “Miss Bob White” was produced, the cast included half of the city while not one of the other half would have missed the affair.
With the coming of the motion pictures, the stage performers faded gradually, until finally—with the exception of vaudeville acts between the features—the silent screen held sway. In February 1929, the initial performance of a talking “movie” appeared in Cortland, “The Street Angel.”
Thousands of Normal School graduates received diplomas there. Many learned to skate there. A man came from New York City to heckle Theodore Roosevelt there, and for a moment the crowd expected “Teddy” to climb into the gallery to get at his verbal assailant. And who could resist attending John Phillip Sousa’s annual concert there?
The old theater had little or no wing space but heavy drafts blew through them, and the dressing room space was small and cramped. But these did not deter the nation’s famed troopers from using them in preparation for stepping before the applauding and appreciative community of Cortland.
The Shine Theater Corporation purchased the building in 1932 and shortly after, the building was condemned. Plans suggested erecting an eight story office and commercial building on the site, but instead, its height was reduced and its insides carted away in 1938, transforming the theater into a Sears-Roebuck store.