The Hudson Valley is sprinkled with grand old theater houses built during buoyant days in the mid- to late-1800s and early 1900s. Popular for a while, these theater buildings went out of fashion and often fell into disuse from the 1950s onward. Demolition threatened. Jarred by the prospect of losing these landmarks, local individuals and groups sprang into action to preserve the buildings, recreate their cultural heartbeat, and help revitalize the surrounding community.
One of these old-time gems is found in Poughkeepsie: The Bardavon Theater. First opened in February, 1869, the Bardavon was originally named the Collingwood Opera House after its builder, James Collingwood, and the Collingwood family owned and operated the theater for more than 50 years. During that time the Bardavon showcased top-level talent in dance, theater, and music, bringing to Poughkeepsie such lights as John Philip Sousa, Edwin Booth, Isadora Duncan, and Ignacy Jan Paderewski.
From what I can piece together from the theater’s website and its entry in Wikipedia, the Collingwood family sold the theater in 1923 to Paramount. Paramount arranged for the installation of a Wurlitzer organ specially designed for the theater and reopened it in 1928 as the Bardavon Theater. Until 1975 the Bardavon was primarily a movie house.
Competition from suburban mall movie theaters lead to the Bardavon’s closing in the mid-1970s. With dreary predictability, the idea was floated to demolish the building and replace it with a parking lot. In response, a group of concerned citizens formed a not-for-profit organization dedicated to saving the building and turning it back into a significant cultural institution.
The 944-seat theater, now renamed the Bardavon 1869 Opera House, reopened in 1979 as a performing arts center. It is the home of the Hudson Valley Philharmonic (HVP), which offers five concerts per year along with numerous young artist and school-oriented programs. In addition to the HVP, the Bardavon hosts a range of events on its mainstage, consisting primarily of music and dance. This winter’s program included the Vassar Repertory Dance Theatre 35th Annual Gala and an evening with Aretha Franklin. On March 24th the mainstage hosts a theatrical performance using puppets that explores the history of dinosaurs. Upcoming events this spring and summer include performances by jazz pianist and singer Diana Krall, Ronnie Specter and the Ronettes, and Cirque de Ballet. The Bardavon also live-casts opera from the Met on the big screen, and periodically shows films, such as It’s a Wonderful Life following the annual Christmas parade.
In early December 2016 the Poughkeepsie Journal reported that the organization Americans for the Arts claimed for the Bardavon an economic impact on the local community of more than $10 million. According to that same Poughkeepsie Journal article the Bardavon has 20 business members, more than 80 sponsors, and two thousand member households. Not surprisingly, one-third of the member households are located in the city and town of Poughkeepsie, with another third located elsewhere in Dutchess County. According to executive director Chris Silva, in 2015 membership accounted for 6% of the total operating budget of $3.6 million, or about $216,000. The New York State Council on the Arts contributed $28,000 for the Hudson Valley Philharmonic, and another $55,000 for general operating support.
Bardavon 1869 Opera House, Inc., the not-for-profit organization that owns the theater, also owns the Ulster Performing Arts Center in Kingston. More on that in another post.