by Paul W. Marino
Posted April 24, 2006
When the Wilson House hotel was built in the 1860's, it had a small opera house inside its walls that never amounted to much. In 1895, the (brace yourself) Father Matthew Total Abstinence Society---a temperance organization not unlike the YMCA & the YWCA---built an opera house of their own on Center Street, which they dubbed the Columbia Opera House. It had a full stage and dressing rooms, and did host some summer stock companies, but the theatre was a multi-purpose space. They could take the seats out and hold dances and basketball games there, which they did. By 1913, movies were becoming popular, and the Columbia added a screen. About that time it became known as the Bijou Theater. I don't know what became of the Father Matthew Society, but my guess is that they fizzled out, and the theatre was acquired by someone else. Most likely, the Sullivan Brothers. They were children of Irish immigrants who (the brothers, that is) built a real estate empire. By 1955, their sister (and sole heir) Florence, was the largest single holder of real estate in North Adams. Anyway, the brothers started in the furniture business and branched out into theatre and real estate from there. I know they were running the Bijou in 1913. Now back to the Wilson House:
It was acquired by the Sullivan Brothers in the 1890's. Circa 1901, they began construction of a theatre behind it. Completed circa 1902, they dubbed it the Empire. It had a full stage with dressing rooms, a scene shop, two balconies, and loge seats (if loges are what I think they are), and seated 1000. Its grand entranceway was through the Wilson House. About the same time (1902), Clinton Q. Richmond added a theatre to the Richmond Hotel. Like the Empire, it had a full proscenium stage, dressing rooms, and a scene shop. It had three balconies, though the third balcony was actually a second tier of the second balcony. It also went by the dubious epithet, nigger heaven. I still hear that phrase on occasion from people of a certain age. Both theatres were largely used, and the Richmond anyway added a movie screen. The Richmond often put on plays bound for Broadway. North Adams audiences were said to be very hard to please. In fact, I've heard of a theatre in NYC where someone is supposed to have painted on the wall "You think Broadway is tough, try playing North Adams." I don't know how accurate that is. The Empire was used for Vaudeville as well as plays; Ethel Barrymore performed there, as well as Fred & Adele Astaire, and I've heard that Houdini is supposed to have played there too. In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech there while campaigning for the Bull Moose Party. The house was full to capacity, with 500 more standing in the aisles. A few months later, the Wilson House burned to the ground, taking with it the Empire and the Sullivan Block (the city's first six-story building). The next day, the Sullivan Brothers were talking about rebuilding. Using three existing walls, they rebuilt the Empire, adding another 200 seats. In front of it, they built the present Empire Building.
The Sullivans also built a second (or third) theatre on Center Street in the 1920's, which they called the Capital (or Capitol, I forget which: I'm doing all this off the top of my head). Like the Empire and the Richmond (which they also controlled), it had a full stage, dressing rooms, a movie screen, etc. It was intended to seat 12 or 13 hundred. But it was never completed. When it was coming down in 1970, my father called it the "Spite" theatre, explaining that two people wanted the same piece of property, so one built a theatre shell on it to spite the other. But research shows that the Sullivans built it---not out of spite---but as a threat to anyone who might try to build another theatre in North Adams. They had seats and curtains ordered, had plans and permission to put an entrance through buildings they already owned on Main Street, but never completed it. They appeared to have no plans to do so, unless someone else tried to build a theatre; they could then complete the Capital and have it open while their competition was just getting his ground broken. For its entire existence, it was the headquarters for their real estate empire. And later their sister's, and then her executor's. It was lost to Urban Renewal.
By the late 1930's, the Sullivan Brothers were all retired. Their theatrical holdings were taken over by Western Mass Theaters in Springfield. Like the Sullivan Brothers before them, WMT had its fingers in every theatrical pie in North Adams......except the Richmond, which in 1937 was being managed by E.M. Lowe. Back to him in a moment. The Bijou had long since closed its doors and passed through several hands until it was ultimately purchased by one of the city's two Jewish congregations, who used it as a synagogue and Hebrew school until 1955, when it was torn down in the first great Urban Renewal effort. Now back to E.M. Lowe: In 1937, his lease on the Richmond was about to expire and WMT was waiting to seize control and boot him out. Eager to maintain a theatrical presence in North Adams, he began buying up little pieces of lots until he had enough land to build a theatre on. That theatre was, of course, the Mohawk. It's especially interesting that WMT had an option on the Capital at this time, but did not exercise it. My guess is that they did not have the option of running an entrance to Main Street that the Sullivans had.
Also in the 1930's, the Empire was purchased by the Paramount Publix corporation. You may be aware that, at that time, movie studios were buying up theaters all over the country where they could showcase their own films? This is exactly what happened to the Empire. It was remodeled and its seating capacity increased, and it became one of several hundred (or thousand) Paramount Theaters all over the country. Circa 1969, there was a fire in the theater, though the manager told me it was just in the scene shop, contained behind a fire-proof screen. Nevertheless, this fire was used as an excuse to demolish it in the second Urban Renewal craze of 1970. The Richmond closed in the 1940's. Despite its size and pomp, it was improperly designed and didn't have adequate ventilation. Circa 1952, it was purchased by the Fraternal Order of Eagles, who hired Gordon & Sutton (the same contractors who built the Mohawk) to renovate it. The seats and balconies were removed and the floor raised until it was level with the stage. Then that huge space became their lodge room. The dressing rooms and such were put to other purposes, such as their bar and pool hall. I can say this with complete candor because I was in there once and remember it! It seems that my eldest brother's girlfriend of the time was the daughter of an Eagle, and we were invited to some social event they had going on. I don't remember the lodge room (hey, I was only about 4 years old!), but I do remember by brother's girlfriend taking me to an upstairs(?) room where there was a pool table. A couple of guys were playing a game, and the girl said "These men are going to teach us how to play pool." Anyway, the Richmond was condemned for Urban Renewal; the Eagles built a new lodge on Curran Highway, and the theatre came down circa 1970.
Copyright Paul W. Marino, 2006
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