OSWEGO — Amid the hustle and bustle along East First Street Tuesday afternoon, the Oswego County Historical Society harkened back to the days when the Port City was a Mecca for the theater.
Historical society members, city officials and other held a ceremony, dedicating a roadside marker recalling the site of the Richardson Theater.
The program was hosted by Justin White, president of the society, and Rick Sivers, president of the Oswego Players and historical society board of trustees member.
Also speaking at the dedication were Mayor Billy Barlow, City Historian Mark Slosek, Councilor Robert Corradino and Historical Grants Specialist Susan Hughes, representing the William G. Pomeroy Foundation.
The marker is located atop the hill overlooking the current Education Center, 120 E. First St.
Richardson was the youngest mayor of the city of Oswego, White said, emphasizing the word “was.”
“But our current mayor is now the youngest. I have to change my script. Richardson is the second youngest,” White told the crowd of about two dozen.
“I appreciate all the hard work that everybody here does to help keep the city’s history alive,” the mayor said. “It is very important that we recognize historical sites like this and historical figures in our city’s history.”
Seventh Ward Councilor Corradino echoed the mayor’s sentiments.
“I think it is important that we support endeavors like this. Remembering the past is very important for all of us here. We have a very long and varied history that goes back a couple hundred years,” he said. “This is a great way to remember the people and places that created the beginning of Oswego.”
Slosek offered a profile of Richardson.
“He brought the arts, entertainment and theater to the people of Oswego. Max Richardson was a Renaissance man, a man for all seasons. Born in Oswego in 1838, he was educated in both public and private schools,” Slosek said.
He was a student of Edward Austin Sheldon and received his diploma in 1858.
He also studied law under John S. Churchill and opened a law office in 1861.
In 1866, he was elected mayor. He was actively engaged in real estate and “owned quite a bit of property in Oswego,” Slosek said, adding that Richardson was elected to a second term as mayor.
He was involved in many community organizations and he also sold insurance.
“His love of drama prompted him to build and operate the best theater in northern New York for almost 40 years,” he said. “This plaque is meant to recognize Max, his theater and remind us of its glorious past.”
Sivers shared a brief history of the Richardson Theater, which opened in January 1895.
Ground was broken on the northwest corner of East First and Oneida streets, now the parking lot of the current Oswego Education Center.
“It took two years from groundbreaking to opening night. The theater was L-shaped. You would have sat in the auditorium facing the lake. There were 1,400 seats,” Sivers said. The auditorium was lit by both gas and electric lights with a domed ceiling 40 feet in diameter.”
Opening night on Jan. 25, 1895, brought out Oswego’s finest to get a look at the new theater and see a performance of the opera “Robin Hood.”
The performance was sold out and Richardson was lauded by the city for his grand theater.
“Why anybody would hold an opening night in Oswego in January is beyond me. But this (East First) street was filled with all of the ones that had purchased seats and about 1,500 people who couldn’t get seats,” Sivers said. “They were standing in the street wanting to get into the galleries, which were the balconies at the time.”
Sivers said he doesn’t know if the script still exists; he hasn’t been able to locate a copy.
Using his own money, Richardson, who had served twice as mayor of Oswego, set out to make Oswego a stop on the national theater circuit.
“It cost him $125,000 to build the theater in 1895. In today’s money, that would be about $3.5 million,” Sivers said. “It was a major endeavor.”
The four-story brick building measuring 132 feet by 118 feet was anything but plain in the interior.
Boxes lined the walls on each side of the auditorium nearest the stage.
That stage was 50 feet deep and 68 feet wide and rivaled any in the state.
There were 50 fly lines for scenery on a grid 60 feet above the stage.
A total of 25 permanent sets were available to touring companies that came to play the Richardson.
The stage opening was 32 feet high and 40 feet across.
Sivers believes several things contributed to the demise of the grand theater; World War I, The Great Depressions, along with the advent of motion pictures and the fact that the railroad line is the end of the line here, stock companies weren’t coming to Oswego anymore.
“The theater had dwindled. Max had died in 1903. His brother Lawrence took over (the theater) and then Max’s nephew took over the estate – it just couldn’t hold on,” he said.
In some other communities, theaters like this still exist. They were not free-standing buildings, Sivers explained. They were in the middle of a block.
“This building stood alone. If in fact it might have been a continuous building along First Street or Bridge Street, even though we had Urban Renewal, the entire theater block might have been able to be saved,” Sivers said. “Whether or not we could have continued to maintain it is another thing. But it certainly was the pinnacle of theater history in Oswego. I’m sorry I never got into it, I was born right after it came to the ground.”
Hughes said the Pomeroy Foundation would like to add more markers around the county (and the state), and urged anyone with an idea for a historical marker – or one pertaining to local legends and folklore – to contact her.
“There is such a rich history here. There are so many more places where we could markers such as this,” she said. “We get calls and emails from people who tell us that when they are out on the road and they see one of these blue and yellow markers, they stop and read them. So it does promote tourism.”
It’s a much-needed economic benefit to many of the areas where these are places, she pointed out.
“They also provide pride of place. Look at all the people that are here today on a Tuesday afternoon. It’s because we are all very proud of the city of Oswego,” she said.
The foundation has funded almost 400 markers. Oswego’s (purchased last year) is number 297.
During the lifetime of the theater from 1895 to 1945, 5,360 performances were given in the theater, showcasing the talents of such notables as Otis Skinner, David Balasco, Ethel Barrymore, Lillian Russell, Maude Adams, George Arliss, Alfred Lunt; as well as musicians, orchestras and bands, topped off by two appearances by John Phillip Sousa and his band in 1896 and 1899.
The first silent movie shown at the Richardson was in 1897 and the first picture with sound in July 1912.
Spectaculars such as “Ben Hur” played the Richardson, but with advent of vaudeville, World War I, the Great Depression and motion pictures, the Richardson Theater was seen as too distant a location for the waning number of touring companies.
The marker serves as a reminder that Oswego, at one point, had one of the better theaters, the most modern theater of its day in all of New York State, Sivers said.
Oswego County Historical Society
The Oswego County Historical Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the rich history of the county.
The society maintains and operates the Richardson-Bates House Museum, a historic landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The museum is open to the public Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 1-5 p.m. and other days by appointment.
For more information call the museum during regular hours at 343-1342.