Making A Comeback
SALAMANCA – Having seen a rough history, a building stands on the corner of Broad and Main streets in the city of Salamanca. With the love and restoration efforts of many people over the past 30 years, what started life as the Schine’s Seneca Theater, a movie house, is home to a performing arts stage through constant renovation as the Ray Evans Seneca Theater.
The building was fully complete and given a grand opening and ribbon cutting by city Mayor Thomas Wilson, on Aug. 27, 1942. The ceremony was complete with music by the American Legion Band and the Girls Civic Drum Corps, according to the official history, and the memory of Cattaraugus County Living Arts Association, Linda Freaney who has been a part of the theater renovation since the early 1980s, after spending a lot of time at the theater as a child, she said.
Once the building was complete, in 1942, film reels of the news at the front, news of the conflict was played before features. News reels played at movie theaters were one of the prevalent ways action on the fronts were relayed, and the Seneca Theater was one of those venues. The newsreels were part of a daily dose of serial films, like Ma and Pa Kettle and Skyking.
Patrons walking into the theater would be greeted by John Eberson-style art deco design work, walking through the main foyer, in the lobby, where a long candy counter would be centered in the main lobby. Eberson was a renowned theater designer of the time, responsible for theaters in New York City and other prominent areas. A curtain section would be directly behind the candy counter workers so they could monitor the films, making sure all was set for intermissions and conclusions of the film.
“We used to come in to see those serial shows,” Freaney said. The first show to be viewed in the theater, then owned by Schine’s theater chain, was Fred MacMurray and Rosalind Russell’s “Take a Letter Darling.”
Though it will never look the same as it did in its heyday, the Seneca Theater has started to make a comeback. After three decades of renovations, and a two-year hiatus, the progress, once a direction has been re-established, will continue to make the facility a premiere entertainment gem in the Southern Tier, according to Freaney.
At that time, the auditorium had seating capacity of 1,400 movie-goers. Since renovations have occurred, the boxes and balcony seating that once existed have been removed, offering seating for around 540.
Through the 1940s and 1950s, the theater was busy, playing host to graduation events, bingo games and many other community events, Freaney said.
“In fact, during the 1950s, on Sunday afternoons, the place would be packed for Vaudeville shows out of New York City,” she said.
Several advantages had a draw for the theater. The sound system was considered to be one of, it not the best, sound systems in Western New York. That was paired with a then-state-of-the-art cinemascope to draw in the people, paying 40 cents for adults and 11 cents children in admission prices. The theater had such a solid reputation that it was not unusual for films to hit Salamanca a couple weeks before finding their way to the larger houses in Buffalo, Freaney said. Movies would play on a continuous basis, from 2-11 p.m.
The golden age of the theater was prosperous for the Seneca Theater.
That great tradition of the weekend matinee, or the movie marathon started to decline in the late 1960s, however, according to historic information from the Living Arts Association. Television had become more and more of a mainstay, keeping many people from theater attendance. The Seneca Theater started to really feel the pinch. After several ownership changes and declining attendance, the building that was bustling day after day was forced to drop to a weekend-only schedule, and only over the summer by 1967.
Four years later, the fate of the theater seemed to be sealed when the waters form the Allegheny River cascaded off the stage in the building, according to some sources, in a 5-foot-tall wall that washed over the auditorium. Many hours were spent to make an attempt to return to even the minimal operations, to no avail. Freaney said the place only opened for a couple weeks and then closed its doors for what was expected to be forever, as a theater, at least. Just 30 years prior, the first movie played. The last one to be projected in the former configuration was the James Bond Classic, “Dr. No.”
After sitting boarded up, closed off to the world, for two years, a Little Valley native purchased the property for use as a discount store, eventually finding itself being used as really nothing more than a storage area, according to Freaney. The building sat in a state of disrepair and continual decay on the inside until 1983, when, as a move by the city of Salamanca under the federal blight removal program, the building was purchased from its owner for $15,000 and was given to the Living Arts Association for use, Freaney said.
Since that time, much work has been done to the building. Many hours of work have gone into the reconstruction. Those efforts have been renewed with some fresh blood in new members of the Living Arts Association, Freaney said.
Under the new name of The Ray Evans Seneca Theater, now named after Salamanca native and co-writer of the holiday hit, “Silver Bells,” Ray Evans. Over the weekend of Sept. 2-3, 1989, the theater, after three years of renovation, opened its doors for entertainment once again.
In the original renovations, the theater scaled from its 28 doors, six sets of stairs, 80 feet of heat ducts and three heating systems to 61 doors, 28 sets of stairs, 990 feet of heating ducts on 11 systems. The stage has also been modified to be bigger, allowing for more of a performance area for plays and musicals, not just the movie and Vaudeville-sized stage that used to inhabit the area. As the theater was cleaned out and practically rebuilt on the inside, Freaney said 42 tractor-trailer loads of garbage were removed from the building.
Visitors to the theater will be able to see much of the original art deco styling.
“There used to be phosphorescent murals on the walls,” Freaney said. “Those would illuminate in the dark. They were lost during and after the flood.”
Much of the renovations have been completed, to include transformation of wing seating areas into galleries. The north side of the theater is a who’s who of autographed pictures of stage and screen actors, comedians and musicians, many of whom graced the stage in the theater.
The newest incarnation of the Living Arts Association includes a couple members who have vast experience in stage John Attanasio and Todd Wagner, of the Bradford, Pa.-based, Enchante Cabaret. The duo have helped to stage shows at the theater and Freaney hopes that more will be produced.
Having seen several shows staged for the community, as well as civic organization pageants, restoration of the theater is not complete, Freaney said. For starters, several seats need to be refurbished in the auditorium, and some work to lighting and to heating need to be completed. As for the structure and its function, there are still things to do, but Freaney says it is all on the path to be where it needs to go.
“After a couple years off, we have a new energy and a new focus,” she said. “We need to figure out how to get there.”
For those looking for more information on the theater or on the Cattaraugus County Living Arts Association, contact can be made at 945-1003. The organization is a 501c(3).