Monday, August 19, 2019

Superman at the County Fair

by Erin Doane, Curator

“Look! Up in the sky!”
“It’s a bird!”
“It’s a plane!”
“No, it’s Superman!”

That’s what people were saying in Horseheads when tv’s Superman, George Reeves, made an appearance at the Chemung County Fair on August 14, 1956. The 6-foot 2 ½-inch tall, 195-pound actor played the title role in The Adventures of Superman from 1952 to 1958. He came to the fair as part of the “Kiddie Kapers” grandstand show that included another popular television star of the time, Lassie.

George Reeves making an appearance at the Chemung County Fair on August 14, 1956
A record overflow crowd of more than 5,000 people, mostly children, filled the grandstand for “Kiddie Kapers.” The show began with a clown act that finished with two clowns crawling through the grandstand, dusting off the children with feather dusters. Next came a small brass band, then an aerial trapeze duo. The Briants, a comedy pantomime team performed after that, then Cowboy Jim Phillips and his horse Smokey took the stage. Lassie was up next, performing clever tricks and stealing the children’s hearts. A bullwhip and knife-throwing demonstration by William Cody and Company followed the canine tv star. And then it was time for the final act – Superman.

George Reeves came onto stage as mild-mannered Clark Kent, but after a brief moment behind a backdrop he reappeared as Superman. While everyone was excited to see Superman, as he went about explaining how television shows were made, the children became restless and some began to boo when they found out Superman was not going to fly for them. Yet, when he offered free autographed pictures, hundreds of children rushed the stage.

George Reeves (left) and Lassie had never met until they were “introduced” at the Chemung County Fair, Star-Gazette, August 15, 1956
Reeves spoke to reporter Jim Morse of the Star-Gazette while he was here for the fair. Reeves didn’t seem surprised that children would be disappointed by him not flying. “It takes plenty of explaining,” he said, “when the kids ask me how I’m able to fly. If they’re real young, I tell then that’s Superman’s secret. If they’re 10 or older, and appear serious, not fresh, I tell them the truth. It’s best that way.” My guess is that “the truth” may have had something to do with explaining showbiz magic.

In the interview, Reeves also described how people, both children and adults, were always trying to test him as Superman. Grown men would take swings at him so they could brag that they punched Superman. He always refrained from getting into a fight in public and would run away from such encounters whenever possible. “A guy in my position never wins a public fight, even if it isn’t his fault,” he explained. “The publicity kills you.” Reeves also took his status as a role model for children seriously. He even gave up smoking so kids wouldn’t pick up the habit from seeing him do it.

Reeves also told a rather frightening story to Morse. One time when he was at an appearance in Denver as Superman a 7-year-old showed up with his father’s loaded .45 pistol. The boy wanted to see the bullets bounce off of Superman like they did on television. Reeves was able to talk the child out of shooting him by pointing out that when the bullets bounced off him they might hit someone in the crowd and the boy didn’t want anyone to get hurt.

Monday, August 12, 2019

The Summer Stage at Rorick’s Glen

By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

In 1900, the newly consolidated Elmira Water, Light & Railroad Company got the brilliant idea to drum up ridership by opening an amusement park at the end of their Water Street line. Such parks had been a popular tactic of trolley and railroad companies since shortly after World War I. Check out our old blog Tourist Traps and Other Summer Pitfalls for details. Rorick’s was all set to be another fairly generic park until W. Charles Smith, the manager of Elmira’s Lyceum Theatre of Lake Street, suggested the addition of a theater. It proved a fateful suggestion and, from 1901 to the start of World War I, Rorick’s Glen was one of the preeminent places for summer theater in the country.

Glen Theater program, 1913
The initial season wasn’t all that promising. The first performance was by William Josh Daly’s Minstrels presented by Mr. & Mrs. Harry Dixie. Most of the shows in that first season were vaudeville variety acts and the audiences were underwhelmed. In 1901, they decided to change things up by bringing in the Manhattan Opera Company. The troupe specialized in operettas and musicals, primarily those by Gilbert & Sullivan. They were a big hit and spent the next 17 years as the theater’s resident summer troupe. In fact, from 1904 to 1916, they were widely regarded as the best summer stock company in the country. In addition to performances by the Manhattan Opera Company, the Glen Theater featured performances by some of the biggest names in vaudeville. They also regularly hosted the Elmira Free Academy’s annual senior play.

The Manhattan Opera Company in the Mikado, 1909
The original theater was a large, lovely building with a seating capacity of 1,500. It burned on the night of June 24, 1904, but was not completely destroyed. The roof was gone, but much of the stage and seating area remained intact. By July 4 of that year, it was back open for business, sheltered by a large tent instead of a proper roof.

They built an entirely new theater in time for the 1905 season. It was roughly the same size, but had been redesigned. The lobby was now a giant wrap-around porch accessed via a flight of stairs and decorated with hanging plants Elmira Water, Light & Railroad Company and beautifully carved railings. It had canvas coverings which could be rolled up or pulled down over the large windows depending on the weather. Several improvements were made to the structure over the years, including the addition of box seating. 600 seats on the ground floor were free, with box and other reserved seating costing between 10 and 15 cents depending on the location. Tickets could afford to be so cheap because, unlike the downtown theaters, the goal was to generate ridership and revenue for the trolley, not the theater itself. 

Picture postcard of the second theater
After World War I, Elmira Water, Light & Railroad Company ridership fell as more people began acquiring cars. Unable to properly maintain the park and theater, the company let them both slowly fall apart throughout the 1920s. The building was finally destroyed in a fire in March 1932.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Skunk Hill Ranch Road

by Andrea Renshaw

Andrea is a new Education Volunteer at the Chemung Valley History Museum, coming to us with a history degree from Troy University, and experience in education. She has lived in Chemung County for most of her life and excited to be able to learn more about local history and its connections to our lives today. We are lucky she found us!

A piece of local history that seems to be fading is the account of the Skunk Hill Ranch. For many years the name of the road kept its memory alive, but after being renamed, fewer and fewer of our community can tell you where to find Skunk Hill. Skunk Hill Ranch Road (Skunk Hill) has been renamed Harris Hill Road for many years now, and is the steep road connecting County Route 64 in Big Flats with the top of Harris Hill.

Skunk Hill Ranch was born out of a time when fur demands were still high and even the Department of Agriculture was endorsing this get-rich-quick scheme as the next millionaire-making business. In 1896, a prominent Elmiran, Fred LeValley, built his new business venture in nearby Big Flats, far enough away from town not to offend the local residents. On a cinder path on the side hill, the hopeful rancher built his stone and fence enclosures that would become home to thousands of skunks. Pens were first surrounded by ditches then backfilled with stone to keep any of the skunks from burrowing under the fence. It was said that these skunks were quite tame in their pens, but did not always appreciate visitors.  Unfortunately for this local capitalist, it was not the imagined goldmine. In 1904, less than ten years later, the farm was given up. LeValley found that domestic skunks could not produce the lustrous fur quality of their wild counterparts. This issue may have been in part the difficulty of raising skunks on a proper diet in captivity, though it’s said that they were raised on raw meat procured from the local area.  In 1897, Chemung County gained a second skunk ranch when an established farm from Brockton sold to a new owner in Van Etten. This farm seemed to have experienced the same issue with fur quality before its move.

Skunks grown on these ranches were raised for both their fur and their oil, which was used in the cure of several ailments. When Chemung County’s first skunk farms were created, skunk fur was selling for $1 per fur with oil selling at fifty cents an ounce. Beginning around the 1880’s the call for skunk fur began and was predominantly from Europe. Parisian fashion kept up the demand for skunk fur in coats, muffs, hats, and decorative fringe, though for fashion’s sake it may have been sold as Alaskan Sable, American Sable or Black Marten. Well through the twentieth century skunk fur could be seen advertised for its fashionable glossy coat and warmth. As far as fashion went, the best skunk was one with an almost all black coat. Though it is hard to find this trait in the wilderness, many ranches found that breeding this trait was their ticket to success.
Example of skunk coat
Skunk oil turned out to be a more reliable income for farmers. Skunk oil was not, as you may be thinking, their infamous odor-containing spray, but rather fat renderings that were heated into the sought-after product. Skunk oil was sold as a cure-all used for rheumatism, coughs and colds, skin softening, and whatever else one might think to try. Skunk oil could be taken internally or externally depending on the ailment; it was known to cure colds both as a chest rub or ingesting a teaspoonful. It was also used as a regular supplement, much in the way cod liver oil was used.
Skunk Oil
Farms like the Skunk Hill Ranch and the Van Etten farm catered to both of these supplies well into the twentieth century, but unfortunately most farms saw an end much like our local skunk ranch. The land that once held the Skunk Hill Ranch is private property today, but would have sat very near the clearing for the power lines on the right side of the road heading up the hill.