A Column about Historic Locations in New York's Southern Tier - by Roger Luther
One of Binghamton's Earliest and Least Known Theaters Turns 100

“Just as the early picture show came to a close last night there was a flash of blazing film and the operator’s booth was quickly filled with flame.” The Binghamton Press article of 1919 went on to describe what could have been a major disaster at the People’s Theatre on Water Street, Binghamton. Although the projectionist was seriously injured, the fire was contained in the concrete projection booth until firefighters arrived and extinguished the blaze. The report continued, “the building is of fireproof construction – there was no panic,” and in fact, the patrons of the theater did not know that a fire was in progress until after the arrival of the firemen.

Composite image with current photo and vintage newspaper clipping showing A.W. Newman with others at the People's Theatre entrance on opening day, July 6, 1914.

Six years earlier when the theater was built, concerns about fire could not have been greater. On July 22, 1913, just six weeks before construction of the People’s Theatre began and only one block away, fire broke out at the Binghamton Clothing Company claiming 31 lives – an event that remains to this day the worst loss-of-life tragedy in Binghamton history. Following that event, there was a new emphasis on fire safety in building construction. It has been said that from every tragedy, something good comes. In fact, this building stands today because of lessons learned from the Binghamton Clothing Company fire.

In 1913 A.W. Newman operated a jewelry store on Chenango Street. That summer there were four theaters featuring vaudeville and motion picture entertainment in Binghamton, and Newman saw a need for a new, more intimate venue. He decided to close his shop and have a theater built – a place where people could gather for evenings of fun and entertainment. It would be called the People’s Theatre.

Albert Willey was contracted to build a five-story building to house Newman’s 400-seat theater. Technically, it would be known as the Willey Block, but this was definitely the people’s building. Built of reinforced concrete it was promoted as an “absolutely fireproof photoplay house” and “one of the most modern structures of its character in the country.” Ground was broken on September 11, 1913, and on the following July 6, the People’s Theatre opened to a packed house.

Grand opening announcement, July 6, 1914.

1933 advertisement for the People's Dance Palace nightclub.

Upper floors of the building were occupied by the Lewis M. Weed Company, a manufacturer of overalls that would in later years become the Drybak Corporation. Like the former Binghamton Clothing Company which also produced overalls, Weed’s assembly lines filled the floors above the theater and hummed with sewing machines operated by young women.

The theater was an immediate success and continued to thrive for several years. Then in the late 1920’s, with the advent of sound in motion pictures, the silent film era came to an end. For reasons unknown, the People’s Theatre held fast in its resistance to the new technology, and by the end of the decade attendance had declined to a point where the theater could no longer continue to operate. It was then that manager Jesse Hilman saw an opportunity.

After the Saturday evening performance on September 27, 1930, the theater closed. Hilman announced that “the front and the rear of the theater will be removed as well as the seats, furniture and fixtures used for movie purposes.” A sale was advertised – theater seats sold for twenty-five cents each, movie projectors went for $75 and the locally-made Link automatic piano and $3,000 Link theater organ each sold for $50.

Once the space was cleared, construction of Hilman’s vision was underway, and within two weeks an indoor 18-hole miniature golf course would open for business. As Hilman proclaimed, “it will be the last word in miniature golf construction.”

Actually, next-to-last word might have been more appropriate – the last word would come two years later when Binghamton’s fascination with indoor golf suddenly bottomed out. Once again the doors closed, the golf enterprise was declared a total loss, and Hilman was bankrupt.

Miniature golf was out, but with the end of prohibition, beer was in. An advertisement in December 1933, proclaimed “Happy days are here again at The People’s Dance Palace,” serving “the finest beer in the city.” Later known as Peoples Palace, and then Peoples Restaurant, the nightclub finally closed in 1938 bringing an end to entertainment in the People’s Building. After that the space was occupied by a variety of commercial businesses, and for many years the Drybak Corporation continued its manufacturing operations on the upper floors.

Starting in 1963 an audio supply shop occupied the lower level and remained for over two decades. It was during that time that the fireproof Willey Block would be put to the test one more time. In the summer of 1968 during a hot evening simmering with racial unrest, wooden boards covering a broken window were set on fire and a Molotov Cocktail fire bomb was thrown at the building. Once again the building survived with virtually no damage.

Over recent years the first floor sat empty until 2012, when it reopened as a brew pub and restaurant known as the Water Street Brewing Company. Today the outside of the building looks much as it did when it first opened a century ago. Marquee lights still line a cast iron façade and frame the lower level, where the original center entrance and ticket booth have long since been replaced by windows. Inside, large stainless steel brewing tanks, a bar and dining tables fill the old theater space where once again people enjoy “the finest beers in the city.” Interestingly, the original sloping theater floor lies hidden in darkness below the current floor, where it is surrounded by faded wall murals that once provided outdoor ambiance for indoor golfers.

It has been a long time coming, but the People’s Building is once again living up to its name. The People are back, and just in time for its 100th anniversary.

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Treasures of the Tier - A Column about Historic Locations in New York's Southern Tier - by Roger Luther