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NSG Visit April 16, 2005
Opera Houses and Halls of Livingston County
The Cobblestone Museum and
Community Hall in Geneseo
Sixteen members of the New Society of the Genesee arrived about noon, Saturday, April 16, 2005, for lunch at the Villa on the Green on the Livingston Country Club grounds along route 20A just north of Geneseo. It was the first pleasantly warm, sunny day of the season.
Alberta Dunn, who had made the arrangements for our luncheon to coincide with an afternoon program at the Cobblestone Museum, featuring the Opera Houses of Livingston County, was standing outside the Villa on the Green restaurant to greet each of us as we arrived Alberta was president of the Society for nine years and is now on the long-range planning committee. Also present from the Livingston County Historical Society were Margaret Wallin, Lawrence Turner, Town of Groveland historian, and Wayne and Barbara Mahood. After an enjoyable meal and conversation, we drove to the Cobblestone Museum for a public lecture and slide presentation by Jane Oakes. David Parish, president of the Livingston County Historical Society, introduced Jane to the room full of people who had come to hear her and see projected slide views of the many opera houses and halls in Livingston County.
Mrs. Oakes has continued searching for entertainment halls, in ten western New York counties between Lake Ontario and Pennsylvania since completing her thesis for an MA degree in history from SUNY Brockport.
Nearly every community in this whole area at one time had a public meeting hall, and the larger towns often had several concert halls. Many were pretentious brick structures in the center of the business district.
In the early villages the inn had been the center of public social activity as was Hosmer's Inn in Caledonia, now beautifully restored in the Genesee Country Village in Mumford. Not only did travelers stop at the hostelries, but also local residents came to attend performances and parties in the inn ballrooms. Churches, too, in the early communities, were places where people gathered, and often churches were converted into community halls when a congregation moved into a new church building.
Jane's latest find, the Amusement Hall in West Groveland, had been the Free Methodist Chapel until the Maccabees purchased it in 1898 for a meeting place, and to hire out for public and private use. These halls were commonly used for dances, concerts, weddings, plays, political rallies and for fraternal society meeting places. The Masons, the Odd Fellows, the Improved Order of Red Men, and the Maccabees all had their halls. The Opera Houses in the larger towns with railroad passenger service had performances of Gilbert and Sullivan operas and vaudeville acts but they often showcased local talent in productions to raise money for a community cause.
Of course, merchants favored halls to attract local potential customers to their businesses. The usual opera hall building had a number of stores on the street level, with the auditorium on the second, or third, floor above. Today we might regard many of these large assembly rooms with only steep, narrow stairways for egress, as fire traps, but the halls prospered in a time when people were hungry for social entertainment.
Geneseo and Dansville had a surprising number of large concert and lecture halls. Clara Barton and Frederick Douglass spoke, and Jesse Bonstelle performed in Canaseraga Hall, built in Dansville around 1839. The Dyer brothers purchased Canaseraga Hall and renamed it Dyer Brother's Hall (later again renamed Opera Hall). Not only was there a hall in the Maxwell Block, one in the Sheppard Block, but also there was Red Men's Hall, and Hoffman's Hall, which had a large butcher shop on the first floor. The Heckman Opera House had a floor which could be leveled to accommodate basketball games or raised at one end for better seating during performances. It had a stationary stage. On the hill overlooking Dansville at the Jackson Health Resort was Liberty Hall.
Geneseo had a number of public halls: the Concert Hall of 1851 where Mark Twain spoke in March 1869; the Geneseo Building which had separate male and female bathrooms for both the public and the players; Rorbach Hall across the Street; Emerald Hall that originally was a Catholic church.
Lima has a building that had a Masonic hall on the third floor, a concert hall on the second floor and business places below. Lima also has the large handsome College Hall on the campus of Elim College. Stanley's Hall is also still standing in Lima in the old Stanley's Exchange building. Avon, Nunda, Livonia and Honeoye Falls had several public halls.
Smaller villages had single-story buildings, some with wild-west fronts. Although a few public halls are still in use for basketball, dances, parties, and receptions, the era of the opera house in Western New York is past. Varied and continual entertainment is available at home today.
Following the lecture, we went to the Geneseo Town Hall to view an exhibit set up by Mrs. Oakes in the large second floor auditorium. Arranged along the walls were photographs of opera houses and concert halls in local communities of Livingston County. In display cases were handbills, mementos of long-ago performances, and scale models of Trescott Hall and the Prettijohn Opera House in Livonia.
Jane Oakes has been collecting pictures and is still actively seeking information on opera houses and performance halls. You can contact her either by e-mail: email@example.com or telephone: 585-226-6795. She intends eventually to present all of this great period of concert halls in a book.