The Richardson Theater: Oswego’s Premier Playhouse

The Richardson Theater as it looked in 1906.

The Richardson Theater as it looked in 1906.

This is the first in a series of articles on theater in Oswego, focusing on the Richardson Theater, Lottie Blair Parker and her play, “Way Down East.” Author Rick Sivers, currently president of the Oswego Players, Inc. and vice president of the Oswego County Historical Society, is directing the play “Way Down East” and organizing an exhibit on the Richardson Theater at the Richardson-Bates House Museum.

OSWEGO – Prior to the opening of the Richardson Theater on January 24, 1895, theater in Oswego had a varied and sporadic history.

The Richardson Theater as it looked in 1906.
The Richardson Theater as it looked in 1906.

Before becoming a city in 1848, entertainment in Oswego ran the gamut from traveling shows, science demonstrations (On March 9, 1820, Dr. Thornton gave a lecture on the effects of laughing gas), to professional theatrical companies.

Licenses were granted for performances on the third floor of the Market Building (Old City Hall on Market Street), constructed in 1835, as well as various public and church halls around town.

Included in these locations were Academy Hall on West Third Street, Franklin Hall, West Second Street, a hall in the Woodruff Block of West First and Cayuga streets, and Doolittle Hall on Water Street just north of Market Hall.

The 1850s proved an especially active time with lectures by such prominent persons as Henry Ward Beecher (1851), Horace Greeley (1852), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1852) and major shows, concerts by singers and touring companies. Even Gen. Tom Thumb appeared in 1851 with P.T. Barnum.

In 1874, all things changed for the city when the Doolittle Building ownership was transferred to the D.L. & W. Railroad.

The hall on the top floor in the building was deemed unsafe, so the railroad undertook extensive renovations, resulting in the opening on Sept. 30, 1875, of the Academy of Music.

It was Oswego’s first real theater with seating for 1,000 and a stage opening 25 feet wide and 16 feet high, the newest in gas lighting and multiple permanent sets ready for any touring company that might come to town.

In its 18 years of operation, 1,117 different attractions played the Academy of Music with “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” being the most popular and most frequently performed.

Ultimately the Doolittle Building that housed the theater had to be closed and in December 1892 was torn down.

It was then a local entrepreneur and former mayor of Oswego, Max Richardson, who had sometime before had become interested in theater, set about to pave the way for another, even grander theater to be built in his name.

After the Academy of Music was closed he refurbished Fitzhugh Hall with a better stage and seating for 500, then undertook the personal task of building a newer, bigger and for its time, state of the art theater in Oswego.

Ground was broken on the northwest corner of East First and Cayuga streets (now the parking lot of the Education Center) for the Richardson Theater.

Using his own money, Richardson set out to make Oswego a stop on the national theater circuit.

The plain, four-story brick building measuring 132 feet by 118 feet was anything but plain on the interior.

The auditorium seated 1,400, was lit by both gas and electric lights with a domed ceiling 40 feet in diameter.

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.

Opening night on Jan. 24, 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 Max Richardson was lauded by the city for his grand theater.

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.

That lack of national interest in the Richardson, the proliferation of movie houses around Oswego and maintenance issues at the theater building, resulted in its eventual closing and demolition in 1945.

While it was in use, it was Oswego’s premier theater, the largest in Oswego’s history.

The Oswego County Historical Society exhibit on the Richardson Theater will open on April 17 with a talk at 1:30 p.m. by Sivers at the Richardson-Bates House Museum, 135 E. Third St., Oswego.

The talk and exhibit that day is free and open to the public.

Subsequent articles over the next three weeks will focus on Oswegonian Lottie Blair Parker, her play “Way Down East” and the upcoming Oswego Players’ production of “Way Down East.”