A Small Community Sets the Stage for Saving a Binghamton Landmark
"The village of Earlville was the scene of a fierce fire this morning. At 3 o'clock flames were seen issuing from the rear of the Opera House," New York Times, July 24, 1890. Ultimately, the "Large Fire at Earlville" destroyed the opera house and many other businesses in the small village.
A new brick theater was built, and two years after the original wood-frame structure was destroyed by fire, the new Earlville Opera House opened for business - that's the same year that a similar theater opened in Binghamton, the Stone Opera House.
From the day the Earlville Opera House opened it followed a course virtually identical to the theater in Binghamton. Like the Stone Opera House, shortly after opening another fire nearly destroyed the building. It was repaired and for the next thirty years provided a stage for concerts, theatrical productions, and community events.
As the nature of theater entertainment evolved, both opera houses went from hosting major productions to vaudeville and travelling medicine shows, then in the early 20th century they were modified to show silent movies. In the 1930's, as the Stone Opera House was remodeled as the Riviera movie theater, Earlville's opera house was similarly converted into the Earlville Theater.
Over the years theater attendance tapered off and in the 1950's the Earlville Opera House closed its doors, predating the Stone's identical fate by several years. For nearly two decades the building sat vacant, deteriorating with each passing season. In 1971, with major leaks in the roof, bricks falling from the walls, and no apparent buyer for the failing structure, demolition was on the horizon. It appeared to be "curtains" for the historic Earlville Opera House. But as they say in the business, it's not over 'till the fat lady sings.
It was that year that New York City performance artist Joey Skaggs became aware of the situation. Skaggs visited the abandoned building, saw great possibilities in restoring the theater, and bought it. Soon after the purchase he proposed a competition and ran an advertisement in New York's Village Voice. An historic opera house in rural upstate New York would be given to the group with the best proposal for its use. A meeting was scheduled for April, 1971, and interested parties were invited to attend and present their proposals. Writer John Blackmore of Madison, New York remembers the event well. A 24-year-old graduate student at the time, Blackmore saw the possibilities. "I went to the meeting with a page of notes" he said. "Legitimate nationally known artistic groups were represented, including the Binghamton Opera and Syracuse Symphony." Among others, dance and theater luminaries Twyla Tharp and Robert Wilson were there with proposals.
Blackmore listened to the others, then presented his plan. He suggested that all the proposals were good but he felt the theater should be community run. Blackmore's passion and enthusiasm won out and for the price of one dollar, his organization, Earlville Opera House, Inc., took possession of the building. A team was organized to stabilize the structure, lumber was donated, public arts events were set up in the store-fronts, and an all-out effort was launched to obtain grants, collect donations and recruit volunteers to start the restoration.
According to the on-line resource Wikipedia, Earlville has a population of 791 and is home to "the regionally famous Earlville Opera House Multi-Arts Center (which) houses a Historic Landmark theater, two art galleries, an arts café, and an artisan gift shop." A preservation success, Blackmore sees an added benefit to the restoration pointing out that twice as many shops are now operating and several Victorian houses in the village have been renovated. Asked how they pulled it off, without hesitating, Executive Director Patti Lockwood-Blais says: "Community support - we wouldn't be here without it. Our grants would have been meaningless without the volunteer work."
In 1892, two magnificent opera houses were built in upstate New York. Over the years they traveled a parallel course, until 1971. Today they are rare surviving examples of a nearly extinct type of structure. One is restored to its former glory and functions as a center for the arts. The other sits dark and empty with major leaks in the roof and bricks falling from the walls.
Asked what advice they might offer regarding Binghamton's Stone Opera House, Blackmore said a project should not be "grant dependent." Instead, what's needed is broad community support. That's how it worked in Earlville. "For 35 years people stuck with it and took the project step by step" he said, adding, "When people have a sense of ownership, the rest will follow." Lockwood-Blais added, "Energy comes from the community. There's no magic, it's the people." She paused, then said, "Maybe people ARE the magic."
For more information and performance schedules visit www.earlvilleoperahouse.com, or call 315-691-3550. To visit the opera house, from Binghamton take route 12 north for 50 miles to Earlville. Turn right at the only traffic light in town and you're there.