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Looking back a century to opening day at the Eastman Theatre

The Eastman Theatre opened on Labor Day, September 4, 1922
Unidentified photographer, Eastman Theatre, 1922. Gelatin silver print, overall: 7 × 10 1/4 in. George Eastman Museum, gift of Henry W. Hopeman.
The Eastman Theatre opened on Labor Day, September 4, 1922

Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture. Song. Dance. Newsreels. Cartoons. A swashbuckling feature film, accompanied by a 56-piece orchestra. And an organ postlude to wrap it all up. For as little as 20 cents, you got a jam-packed couple of hours of entertainment at the Eastman Theatre on its opening day, Labor Day, September 4, 1922.

The theater was the culmination of years of work, and it made national news. George Eastman had etched above its doors: “For the enrichment of community life.”

Jared Case, Curator of Film Exhibitions at the George Eastman Museum, says that Eastman, “recognized as we were still in the silent era that the marriage of great music and great film together was really something that needed to be experienced live.”

The Prisoner of Zenda is a Victorian adventure classic directed by Rex Ingram full of action, suspense and romance.
The George Eastman Museum will project a 16 mm print of "The Prisoner of Zenda" from its collection with piano accompaniment by Philip Carli

Later this month, the RPO and the Eastman School of Music will celebrate the theater’s centennial with the Eastman Philharmonia presenting Richard Strauss’s “Don Juan,” conducted by Neil Varon; Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, “Romantic,” performed by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Andreas Delfs; and a joint performance of the world premiere of “The Cathedral” by Eastman School alumnus Jeff Beal.

To celebrate the anniversary this week, the George Eastman Museum Dryden Theatre is screening “The Prisoner of Zenda” – the swashbuckling feature film shown on opening day. This screening on Tuesday September 6th at 7:30pm. kicks off the Eastman Museum’s series of “Silent Tuesdays” for the fall.

Philip Carli, staff accompanist at the George Eastman Museum, plays piano with the films and introduces each screening with some of the history.

Carli notes that Eastman may have also recognized the benefit of the alliance of music and film in his new theater due to other challenges at the time. Success for his ambitious theater was not guaranteed.

“I think one of the reasons they stressed the music was the latter part of 1922 was a terrible time to open a motion picture theater, especially one that was the third largest in the country in a town of 300,000 people. Because the country was in terrible shape, and the motion picture industry was not in good shape.”

There was a recession: markets had dropped and manufacturers were struggling. The movie industry also had its own troubles.

“There were a lot of scandals, and it caught national attention and raised moral uproars,” explains Carli. “There was the Roscoe Arbuckle scandal and the ongoing trials.” Add into that a riotous party thrown a couple years earlier by Paramount Studios that attracted condemnation and the mysterious murder of major director William Desmond Taylor in February 1922, and Carli says, “there was this surge of anti-movie feeling going through the United States in many quarters.”

A full program at the Eastman Theatre on its opening day in 1922
A full program at the Eastman Theatre on its opening day in 1922

All of that was put aside for the grand occasion: more than 10,000 tickets were sold for the multiple screenings that opening day. Reviews were positive, with reports in newspapers and trade journals across the country. Celebrity guests showed up over the first few weeks, including Motion Picture Association of America president Will Hays showing up to inspect the theater in person.

Unlike other picture houses of the day that were often tied to specific studios, the Eastman Theatre was a “free house," able to show their choice of films.

“This was meant to be the very best of the best. It was a temple,” says Carli, “It wasn't just a cinema. It was designed from the beginning to be a concert hall [and] to be an opera house, as well as an ideal cinema.”

Great care was taken with all of the details, including the lights, the projection standards, and the orchestra, conducted by Victor Wagner, a Viennese musician who played cello for Gustav Mahler and at the Met Opera, as well as conducting operetta and then for films. His previous gigs included conducting for Hugo Riesenfeld at The Rialto and The Rivoli, NYC theaters managed by the legendary Samuel "Roxy" Rothafel.

While audiences came out in droves at first, it didn't last. "A problem became evident early on," says Carli. "The theater was too big for the town. It had trouble keeping full houses. And it was a very, very large theater. And they went through about four managers before settling on the one who managed the theater throughout most of the silent period. The only people who stayed on from the beginning to the end were the chief projectionist and Victor Wagner."

“We had more seats in cinemas than practically any other city, that is per capita, in the United States," marvels Carli. "It was crazy."

Starting in 1930, the Eastman Theatre continued as a concert hall, without its cinematic side. The main theater became known as Kodak Hall after its restoration in 2009. While music is still its mainstay, movies returned to the theater recently with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra playing live to picture with recent films like "Harry Potter" and "Black Panther."

“The two are not that that distinct, you know, they're both experiential;" reflects Jared Case, "they are things that people come and gather you do it communally watching films and listening to music. So it's I think it's a really nice marriage that you know, Rochester has been great supporting throughout the years.”

Mona Seghatoleslami is the Music Director, host and producer on WXXI Classical 91.5 FM weekdays from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. She also hosts the lunchtime concert series Live From Hochstein Wednesdays at 12:10 p.m., interviews musicians, produces special programs, and works on any project she can find that helps connect people and music in our community through WXXI.