Sampson Theater houses memories
Summer Issue 1984
By BRIAN CEROW
The stage is now bare, and has been for more than 50 years, and even with a little imagination, it is difficult to picture exactly what the building once was and its fascinating history.
Old and new tires, piles of inner tubes, rims and other odds and ends are scattered throughout the ground floor, and a 1969 Chrysler Newport sits at what was once the entrance to the inner area of the structure.
Pigeons coo among the rafters of what is now a storage building for Trombley’s Tire Service across the street.
But if the walls could talk, they would tell of the days when one of the finest opera theaters in this part of the state existed right here under its roof, and was the chief center of entertainment locally for nearly two decades spanning from its opening on Oct. 12, 1910, to 1930.
The Sampson Theater, as it was known, still houses memories for a few Penn Yan residents even today, who look back on the days of live stage productions, minstrel shows, vaudeville and silent movies with fondness.
“Theaters in those days were truly theaters, with outstanding stage productions,” said well-known Penn Yan resident Jimmie Cole, whose illustrious entertainment career began at age 11 when he handed out programs in the inner lobby of the theater during the 1917 season.
Cole, of course, went on to become a great circus entertainer and manager before eventually forming his own Jimmie Cole All-Star TV Circus, which to this day still entertains thousands of people each year during its annual winter tour of public schools across the state.
“This theater could handle any large New York stage production better than those even in Elmira or Rochester,” Cole said, noting that the ample fly loft space and large stage area made it possible for touring stage companies to play in Penn Yan and utilize the often spectacular scenery needed by the troupes for production.
Many major shows played at the Sampson during its tenure as a theater in the early part of the 20th century, including several adaptations of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” George M. Cohan’s “Broadway Jones,” Gounod’s “Faust,” and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas such as “H.M.S. Pinafore,”
In addition, silent movies were shown, some historic films such as D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of A Nation,” Tom Mix westerns, and serials like “The Perils of Prudence,” which kept customers returning to capture the next ever-continuing adventures of the film’s heroine.
Sampson’s illustrious history also included the presentation of minstrel shows, vaudeville acts, burlesque and even locally produced shows put on by students at Penn Yan Academy.
Cole recollects that at the age of 12, he was advanced to the position of ticket taker at the theater, and two years later was made treasurer, enabling him to work at the box office and make arrangements with managers of the traveling shows, eventually giving him his first contacts in the entertainment field.
His memories of some of the shows and traveling stock companies that played the Sampson are as clear today as they were when he watched the performances as a wide-eyed, eager, young boy.
He remembers the Graham Stock Company, which came each year with a different play every night, staying in Penn Yan a week at a time.
Musical companies such as one managed by Bob Ott of Massachusetts also graced the Sampson stage. “They had the most beautiful, young girls among the cast that were chaperoned so tightly that you could hardly shake hands with them,” Cole recalled with a slight trace of a grin.
There were also burlesque shows, not the kind of productions associated with today’s understanding of burlesque, but variety-type shows that included song and dance, comedy and other various forms of clean-cut entertainment.
Vaudeville, in its heydey (sic) at the time, brought “some great young comedians” to Penn Yan, including Joe Yule, who was the father of Mickey Rooney.
“We got to be good friends,” Cole said of Yule, which only a few years ago resulted in the local circus man taking a trip to New York City to see Yule’s famous son perform in the Broadway show “Sugar Babies,” for which Rooney sent him front row seats.
During the performance, Rooney went to Cole’s seat and gave him a kiss on the forehead during one of his numbers. “That was quite a thrill,” Cole said.
Rooney’s dad was just one of several performers who played the Sampson in Penn Yan and are now famous names in various fields of show business.
Ray Bolger was also with the Bob Ott musical company, and, according to Cole, was performing the same scarecrow routine that he later made famous in the delightful Judy Garland movie, “The Wizard of Oz.”
And according to local history buff Catherine Spencer, who had in her possession a score of scrapbooks about early events in Yates County, Helen Keller also graced the stage of the Sampson at some time during the theater’s operation.
First class minstrel shows would come into Penn Yan in either one or two railroad cars, depending on the size of the show, and while they were here, would parade down Main Street on a regular basis at noon the days of their performances, and give a band concert at 7 p.m. just before showtime in front of the theater, “no matter if it was 20 degrees below zero or not,” Cole recollected.
“The shows were wonderful,” he stated, and starred strictly white male performers with the traditional blackened faces.
Cole also remembers that the Ellsworth Hose Fire Company, one of many fire companies in Penn Yan, presented an annual minstrel show at the Sampson during the 1920s that was always “a super production.”
“We had some great talent here in Penn Yan,” Cole said, noting that members of the Ellsworth Hose Company would rent scenery and costumes for the minstrel show and delight local audiences with their musical and stage talent.
The tradition of a local minstrel show was later taken on by the Penn Yan Kiwanis Club.
An exception to the all-white minstrel show was a touring group called the Famous Georgia Minstrels, who came to the Sampson in 1921, ’22 and ’23 for four or five night layovers, and which consisted of entirely black performers who “put on a very nice minstrel show that included dancing, music and singing,” according to Penn Yan native Sam Larham, who also played a role in the Sampson Theater’s history.
Larham, along with brother Frank, operated the projector during the silent movie presentations at the Sampson in the early ‘20s, and remembers the Georgia Minstrels as a highly entertaining group with a white interlocutor who “was about six-foot-seven inches tall,” he related. (The interlocutor was the “straight man” who asked the questions of the end men, or joke tellers, in a minstrel show.)
The minstrels “really went to work” during their show, according to Larham, and got “everybody in the theater stomping their feet” to the music and dancing.
The local resident also remembers the Graham Stock Company, and in particular, one of their performances entitled “Up in Mabel’s Room,” a one-act comedy that “went over big” with the audience. Its risqué humor was “probably kind of mild by today’s standards,” Larham related, “but it was a big deal back then.”
He also worked on stage moving scenery, and got acquainted with several of the actors and actresses of various shows, including some members of the orchestra.
One such person was a trumpet player named Paul Lukus, who Larham met around 1921. About six years later, while Larham was running the projector at the Elmwood Theater in Penn Yan for the first presentation of a “Talking” motion picture in the community (entitled “Broadway Melody”), the cast included none other than Lukus, “exactly as I had remembered him, but a little older,” Larham said.
Larham’s brother, Frank, operated the projectors at both the Sampson and the Elmwood during the ‘20s, and later went on to the Schine Theater in Geneva, where he was employed until his death in 1968.
The Elmwood Theater, built 10 years after the Sampson’s opening in 1910, is now the site of Country Charm Salon and the Keuka Cleaners, located on Elm Street in the village.
Another theater, called the Cornwell Opera House, located up above what is now Rite-Aid Pharmacy* on Main Street, was, prior to 1890, the center of entertainment and stage productions in the village before the construction of the Sheppard Opera House during that year.
*now Long's Book Store
The Sheppard later became known as The Lyceum, which was destroyed by fire in March, 1907.
Larham’s father, according to the former movie projectionist, was the last man to escape the building as it went up in flames. Three years later, Dr. Frank Sampson, homeopathic physician and surgeon, drew up plans for a new theater, which was built in 1910 and took his name.
Sampson himself was a graduate of the Hahnneman Medical College in Philadelphia, Pa., and in addition to his title as a physician, also held the offices of president and trustee of the Penn Yan Village Board, as well as being one of the coroners of Yates County.
The building was constructed of reinforced poured concrete and was the first of its type in the area.
The 60 by 100 foot structure was three stories high, and measured 70 feet high at the rear (above the stage) and 55 feet in height above the level of East Elm Street at its main entrance.
“Men in full evening dress and white kid gloves and ladies wearing evening gowns were much in evidence” at the Sampson’s Grand Opening on Oct. 12, 1910, for the performance of Louis Mann’s “laughable play,” “The Cheater”.
According to Cole, who was quite familiar with the seating arrangements, having to book the reserved seating for each new performance, the main floor contained about 500 seats, while there were about 250 balcony seats and 250 more in the Gallery, the uppermost part of the theater.
The first performance at the Sampson drew $3 per ticket price for the reserved seats. Seats in the balcony or Gallery for the silent pictures were between 25 and 50 cents.
“It was not a real attractive theater as far as flare goes,” related Cole, noting nothing elaborate or gaudy in its décor, such as sparkling chandeliers or paintings.
“But it was very conservative, and well-built, and the seating of the main floor wasn’t any deeper than the full depth of the stage. There wasn’t a bad seat in the house,” he said.
Larham remembers the entrance to the theater as four wide doors below a marquis, with windows above that to the projection room.
The customer entered and bought his or her ticket to the right before going through the entrance to the seating area, where the ticket taker checked the seat and number.
Opposite the ticket seller was another little room that sold concessions like popcorn and candy.
A wooden railing about five or six feet high separated the seats from the orchestra pit, and on each end of the pit was a little raised box that would seat about six or eight people per box, one of the 12 such boxes located throughout the theater.
Below, eight dressing rooms in the basement still remain, with the numbers still legible above each door. The rooms are used solely for tire storage at present.
The drop curtain was donated to the Sampson by Wendell T. Bush, a summer resident of Penn Yan who owned the “Esperanza”, the mansion-like building that remains standing near Keuka Lake just south of Penn Yan. A reproduction of the “Esperanza” was contained in the center of the curtain, lending a local flavor to the stage.
Charles Sisson was the theater’s first manager, and Frank Maring was the first stage manager.
Eunice Frame, a black lady pianist, was the regular accompanist for the silent movies, and would receive a copy of some of the main themes to be used during the motion pictures, and adapt them to her use throughout the movie to lend added effects to the action on the screen.
Warner Bush, currently Penn Yan’s most distinguished and respected music and appliance dealer, having been in the business since the early 1900s, also played at the Sampson on occasion.
In 1912, an attempt to make a go of “summer stock” at the Sampson failed, with the closing of the Lyric Stock Company while in Penn Yan in July.
However, the theater received good patronage during the regular winter season, and was reported to be in good financial condition during its existence.
In February, 1915, ownership of the Sampson was transferred to Seymour Purdy for $25,000. A 150 acre farm formerly owned by Albert C. Ansley in Milo was used as a partial payment for the building.
Several lessees during Purdy’s span of ownership have been noted, including Harry C. Morse, a Penn Yan native who is famous in present times for a most unusual fish story that never ceases to amaze the unsuspecting listener.
As a boy of 7, Morse was in a boat at Brandy Bay on Keuka Lake with his mother. Mrs. Morse was fishing and young Harry was leaning over the side of the skiff when an eight-pound trout leaped from the water, grabbed the boy’s nose and flopped into the boat. His mother struck the fish with an oar and rowed quickly back to shore to attend to her son’s long gash.
Pictures of Harry and the fish, along with the story, were “published in all parts of the world.”
Morse for years was pilot and captain of the handsome steel steamer “The Mary Bell,” later known as “The Penn Yan.”
Morse, who while leasing the building confined most of the performances at the Sampson almost solely to moving pictures, was doing quite well until the quick sale of the property in May, 1920 to Cyrus S. Johnson, a noted farmer, businessman and rural mail carrier who was described as a “wheeler-dealer” and “hustler.”
Johnson made some renovations to the posts supporting the balcony and the Gallery during his ownership, but sold the theater shortly after that to the Associated Theater Massachusetts Corporation, which also purchased stock in the newly constructed Elmwood Theater about 1922.
Morse himself was the builder and owner of the Elmwood, and would later play another role in the history of the Sampson Theater.
A Penn Yan Academy graduate by the name of Nat Sackett was the projectionist at the Elmwood, and later on, while running the machine in that theater, was summoned to the side of his wife, who was dying of a heart attack.
It was then that Sam Larham took over, during the middle of a showing of a movie, running the projector and giving him experience he later used at the Sampson. Larham’s first lessons came from the Elmwood’s movie operator, Morris Bassage.
The Gallery at The Sampson was removed in 1928 after the introduction of “talkies,” which put an end to the silent movies for good.
Seating capacity was increased and vision improved with the elimination of the posts that supported the balcony.
Live stage productions were also ceased around 1927, and when Morse eventually bought the Sampson the following year, he noted that “the silent film is rapidly sinking into innocuous desuetude, and the road show is fast disappearing.”
Ralph Seager, another current well-known Penn Yan artist famed for his poetry writing and publications, was employed by Morse when he owned both theaters.
Seager used to hand out flyers and hand-bills, and also played in the orchestra at the Sampson pit for various stage shows on occasion.
The poet recalls some of the Penn Yan Academy drama productions performed on that stage from 1924-’29, and remembers that several school commencements were held there, as well as at the Elmwood, during that time.
As a result in the declining interest in shows and movies near the end of the ‘20s, Morse eventually converted the theater into an indoor miniature golf course, expending much money in the move, one that was a complete disaster.
“He lost a lot of money, even though the golf course was beautiful,” said Cole, who remembers the transition. “I don’t think it was a year before it closed.”
In 1936, ownership went to Wells Jewett, who made major alterations, installing a false ceiling and converting it into a garage and agency for Dodge and Plymouth automobiles.
In 1953 it passed to Penn Yan Motors, Inc., a Buick and Chevrolet dealership at the time owned by Welles Griffeth and A.J. Bennett. Griffeth was the president of Walkerbilt Woodwork, long a large manufacturer of library furniture in Penn Yan.
Richard Trombley purchased the building in 1967 and is the current owner, using the building as a storage area for his Trombley’s Tire Service business on East Elm Street, as noted earlier.
As one stands in what was once the balcony of the Sampson Theater, looking out at a stage that has been rendered totally useless for its original purpose, the feeling of loss can’t help but creep into the thought process, and what marvelous stage events have occurred within the four walls.
For a too brief period between 1910 and 1930, the theater was full of life, bringing to the people of Penn Yan some of the finest entertainment of the day.
They were the best of times.