The Last Grand Curtain Call

Helen Modjeska

Helen Modjeska

In the fall of 1927 an old theater curtain…a ‘drop’ as they were called, was found in a remote niche on the upper level of the old Burtis Grand Theater on North Street. It was made of canvas…yellowed and crumbling. As fragile as parchment with the hand painted images vague and muted. When examined, dozens of autographs were discovered. Applied with crayon and make-up paint, the signatures revealed were of old performers with names like John Drew, James Hackett, Nat Goodwin, Charles O’Neill, Otis Skinner, DeWolf Hopper, Lincoln Carter and the great “Modjeska”. Polish-born actress Helen Modjeska was an amazing stage presence…sometimes vamp…sometimes the spirit of a rascally boy…or the epitome of royalty.

At the time of the discovery the theater had already been unused for a short period of time. It was at one time a combination theater and skating rink and built in place of the Academy of Music. After major construction, it was opened on November 13, 1889 as the Burtis Opera House. There were indoor circuses.  Touring stock companies performed.  Surrounded by the soaring architecture, politicians and civic leaders delivered elaborate speeches. Vaudeville first came to Auburn to appear within those walls. Wrestling matches and boxing bouts were held at the Burtis as well. The theater was described as a “‘second story’ house…its stage and auditorium being above the first floor with stores beneath”.

During the administration of Mayor Thomas Mott Osborne, the city became concerned about fire and forced the owners to install fire escapes and to remodel the front of the building.  One of the favorite dining places was the Osborne Hotel and  the patrons of the theater could be found enjoying small performances held at the hotel as another venue for Auburnians to enjoy entertainment and club gatherings. The Jefferson, erected by Mayor Osborne, also figured into the entertainment of Auburnians with an active billing roster. A new name to me was Motion World. Just as the Burtis and the Jefferson began to show the occasional moving picture, Motion World also hosted live entertainment. Dog acts seemed to be a particular favorite for Auburnians.

Genoia NY Tribune 1919-1922 Burtis Grand Display AdBy 1913, The Burtis Opera House underwent another name change. It became the Burtis Grand. To illustrate the lively nature of entertainment available in 1912 and 1913, newspapers around the area published the bookings commenting “Three shows at the Jefferson, three shows a day at each the Burtis Auditorium and the Burtis Grand and the usual entertainments should furnish plenty of amusement for Auburnians next week.” At the Burtis Auditorium…’eighteen new reels of pictures and eight acts of vaudeville a week’. The Burtis Grand not to be left behind promised ‘popular priced vaudeville’ with excellent several bills. “All of the smaller houses will offer the usual big entertainments for a little money next week and doubtless draw their usual big patronage.” More sites…the smaller houses start becoming familiar…Turn Hall with a boxing exhibition following by a dance party. The Cornell…The Genesee and The Universal where motion pictures were featured with starts as late as 10:45 PM.

Who says Auburn rolled up the sidewalks and everyone went to bed at sunset??!! If you had a nickel, you had somewhere to go.

039-NYC-1918-09-18-NY Clipper Burtis at Auctionp30Amid the grease paint and roar of the crowd environment came civic events and the occasion of the preacher with a theatrical style who was not intimidated by the spirit of the painted vamps and rascals. In 1918 while the United States was at war and the epidemic of Spanish Influenza was killing millions…including Auburnians, the theaters still flourished. Touring troupes from New York City clamored to be booked in Auburn’s theaters. And the audiences came and filled the seats. Laughing, crying, applauding, they chased away the harsh times that existed outside of the majestically adorned halls. It was also in 1918 that the Burtis Grand went up for auction to settle the estate of Edwin C. Burtis, the son of Cary S. Burtis who originally built the Burtis Opera House.

In 1920 it was a great occasion for the Burtis Grand, now billed as “Auburn’s Foremost Photoplay House”, as it featured Lionel Barrymore’s silent motion picture, “The Copperhead”.  As advertised, the audience came from near and far to sit in the great darkness and weep and cheer as the Civil War drama unfolded on the silver screen.

New seats and decorations had replaced the old fixtures by 1927, but the general grand architecture still existed at the Burtis Grand as it had when

crinoline and bustle adorned the stage and heroes in knee pants and silk stockings strutted their hour upon the stage.

Films continued to flicker inside the building which came to be referred to as the ‘old’ Burtis Grand as its grandeur faded and Auburn’s audiences sought a newer vogue. In 1928 and 1929 local groups such as the Odd Fellows could be found gathering at the Burtis Grand.  Meetings, speeches and exhibitions were still filling the auditorium. The great open interior still provided accommodation for large gatherings and though its beauty was of yesteryear, it was still…grand and appreciated. On Halloween night in 1928 the Republicans held a rally featuring Assistant Secretary of War F. Trubee Davison with music by the Salem Town Commandery Band.

As one old theater buff reported

The shell of a once proud palace of amusement today lies idle, facing the prosaic possibility of someday being converted into an office building. But the glory of its past remains as a shadowy heritage of a bygone day, recalled for its brief moment by the hidden musty scroll of names of stars now gone.
Few living remember the heyday of the theater’s prestige, few remain who played upon its boards in the golden days of the trouper. The glamor has gone from a temple of make-believe whose old-time stars themselves have answered the last curtain call.

Newspaper Auburn NY Citizen 1926 Boxing at the Capitol formerly Burtis grandEventually the Burtis Grand became The Capitol Theater. By the mid 1950’s there was no sign of the old double mansarded building and the ghosts of Modjeska, Eddie Foy, the Burtis Orchestra and the thousands upon thousands of central New Yorkers who strolled what could easily be called Auburn’s theater district were left to drift the much emptier streets in search of one more encore.

Suffice it to say, Auburn’s downtown (I still call it that) was a vibrant center of activity and theater played a significant role in its culture and economy. Mayor Thomas Mott Osborne was known to complain that there weren’t enough restaurants to accommodate conventions and theater go-ers and that would be the downfall of the theater and convention business. I have read a great deal these past few days about the scores of years that marked that period of its history and I have barely scratched the surface. There are a number of people who have made this part of Auburn’s past their grand passion for decades and I envy their amazing deep knowledge. I think I would love to do a walking tour with these wonderful historians and drift among the ghosts of Auburn’s theatrical heyday.

Author’s Note: I have theater in my blood so to speak. My great grandfather, George Downing Curtis and his cousin, E. O. Rogers were born in the little Village of Cayuga and became ‘theatrical’ men. George owned one of the first motion picture houses in Ithaca and Rochester, New York and booked vaudeville acts all over New York State and the Midwest. Edgar O. Rogers was larger than life and took his Uncle Tom’s Cabin Touring Group to perform far and wide.  Ned Wayburn…my 3rd cousin 2x removed produced and choreographed with the famous Ziegfeld Follies. I followed another actor…Nat Blossom…who ran off with one of my great grandmother’s family members.  I myself flirted with the limelight a bit in my youth.

And I love old architecture. It speaks to me and when it disappeared before I could experience it,  I cannot help but feel that empty space.

Deborah Martin-Plugh
Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher
© Copyright 2015. All Rights Reserved.

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