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.

No comments:

Post a Comment