125 Years: the Smith Opera House

By Grace Ruble ’21

News Editor

For six weeks over the summer, HWS students Gretty Hollister ‘20 and Austin Jennings ‘19 assisted Associate Professor of Theatre Chris Woodworth in researching Geneva’s own Smith Opera House. Woodworth, who has performed and directed at the Smith and serves on the Board of the Opera House, said she wanted to “focus on the history of the building as the cornerstone of the [125th anniversary] celebration.” Both Hollister and Jennings’ love of the Smith brought them to the project. Hollister said, “I fell in love with the Smith the moment I walked in for the Variety Show during Orientation, and the idea of giving it an awesome 125th birthday was really pretty special.” Jennings echoed a love of the Smith, saying, “I love the Smith Opera House. I go to movies there. I’ve seen the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra there, Photo/Plays. I just love that space.”

Jennings admitted that despite his love of the Smith, he didn’t know much about it prior to his summer assisting Professor Woodworth’s research. Laughing, he said, “I didn’t even know the name ‘Smith’ came from our own William Smith.” Hollister stated that though the group started off with “so many” questions about the Opera House, they did find some answers. Interestingly, “all the shields were painted over during World War II because of their portrayal of the Axis Powers, and they were only rediscovered during the restoration efforts in the 1990s.” Professor Woodworth said that one question that still remains a mystery was “Who constructed the Smith?” She stated, “We were especially curious about who the craftsmen and laborers were that constructed the initial set of buildings. However, we have found virtually no record of them.”

Though the idea of researching an opera house for the summer might sound tedious to those who don’t possess the passion for theatre history that Hollister, Jennings and Woodworth possess, all involved in the project asserted that there were “no average days” on this research project and that each day brought new discoveries.

After they had collected enough information, Hollister, Jennings and Woodworth gave tours of the Opera House to the Geneva community, which Professor Woodworth will be continuing every Wednesday at 10 a.m. through the month of October. When asked what she enjoyed about giving tours, Professor Woodworth expressed the joy of learning about her tour groups’ personal history at the Opera House, saying, “It is always amazing when the tour groups have their own Smith Opera House story. Maybe they had performed there once or graduated from high school there or had a friend or a family member that worked there. Sometimes we hear about someone’s first kiss happening in The Smith.” Hollister recalled that her favorite part of giving tours was “seeing everyone’s faces light up at the special moments–getting to stand on the stage, pointing out the shields, and dimming the lights to illuminate the starry sky. It’s like getting to share your favorite story with a group of strangers and seeing them enjoy it as much as you do.” Jennings, who some may know from his roles on the HWS stage, said that he appreciated how tours allowed him to experience a different type of performance. He said, “It was interesting. It was a different kind of performance than I’ve ever had to do before because I have more experience in acting as characters, whereas giving a tour there’s a performance, there’s script, but you’re playing yourself. So I found it almost a little more nerve wracking than that because I was presenting myself. I was presenting the work that I was doing, the research, and hoping that it would be engaging enough for people and it seemed to certainly be so, which was really nice.”

As a preview to what is likely a treasure trove of fascinating research, Jennings, Hollister and Professor Woodworth were kind enough to reveal their favorite fun facts from the summer. Professor Woodworth shared that “in 1894, when the Opera House was first constructed, it was actually two separate buildings!” Jennings’ fun fact is one that gave him a connection between the Smith and his father’s car repair shop. He said, “I’ve grown up in a very car-centric family, my dad having a car repair shop, so I love cars, and I found out, I believe, if I’m remembering this correctly, in 1898 there was a play called A Patent Applied For that was performed there. It was done by a touring company and we found the original program for it in the Geneva Historical Society. On the program there was a note that said that during the performance a ‘horseless carriage’ would be shown in operation onstage, so it was very exciting for me to see that that one of the very first automobiles was shown on stage at the Smith.” As for Hollister’s fun fact, she was kind enough to share two, the first being that “according to newspaper articles during the building of the original opera house, the third floor was originally going to be a ‘Hall of Science’ or lecture hall where William Smith, an avid spiritualist, hoped to bring in lecturers of all kinds to speak. We have a blueprint of the lecture hall, but no other information about it beyond those couple of articles.” As a second fun fact, she talked about a mystery organ in the Opera House, saying, “There was no organ installed after the 1931 renovations, but Austin found some info to suggest that it was installed in 1937. But then it had disappeared by the 1970s. We have no idea where it went. So, that’s a little Smith Opera House mystery.”

For those interested in more information about the research that was done at the Opera House last summer, Gretty Hollister, Austin Jennings and Professor Chris Woodworth have been writing blog posts about their research, which will go up on the Smith Opera House website beginning this October. Interested community members may also attend one of Professor Woodworth’s tours every Wednesday at 10 a.m. through the month of October.

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