women ugg boots Clemens Center celebrates 40th season
The Powers Theater was renovated in 2008 to better resemble the original Keeney Theatre when it opened in 1925 as a vaudeville and silent movie house.(Photo: David Coleman / Small Town 360)If there can be one lesson learned from the longevity of the Clemens Center in downtown Elmira now in the middle of its 40th season it’s this: Never underestimate the will of a community to come together and do something good.
Since 1925, the theater has survived the decline of the vaudeville circuit, the transition from silent films to “talkies,” and extensive damage after floods swept through the city in 1946 and 1972. Several major remodels over the past nine decades have at various points chopped the building down and added on to it, repainted and restored its interior, and even changed where audiences enter and exit.
With every step along the way, support from local leaders, businesses, foundations and the general public not only has kept the theater from the wrecking ball a fate that too many former movie houses have faced but helped it to thrive.
The nonprofit Clemens Center today is Chemung County’s arts and entertainment hub, with 80,000 people attending performances annually, and folks behind the scenes take that responsibility seriously.
“Our mission is to provide quality entertainment and education in the arts for people of all ages,” said Karen Cromer, the center’s executive director since 2015. “So whether you’re a little tyke coming to see education matinees or a young adult seeing a Broadway performance for the first time or a senior enjoying the orchestra, we’ve got something for everybody.”
Keeney Theater opened in 1925 for vaudeville performances and silent films. (Photo: Provided)
The pastWhen Keeney’s Theater opened on Dec. 21, 1925, local news coverage described the 2,600 seat venue as “the largest and most magnificent theater between New York City and Buffalo” and “a vision of gold and old rose, mural paintings and old ivory.”
The $500,000 project (equal to nearly $7 million in 2018 dollars) was built under the auspices of the Southern Tier Theater Corp., which issued stock to fund construction. Frank A. Keeney, described in the Star Gazette as “a theatrical magnate and financier [and] a director of the Motion Picture Association of America,” leased the theater for 21 years and promised “the exclusive first run Paramount program and the best of the independent output of moving pictures.”
In an era before films had sound, the Keeney’s Marr Colton theater organ served as a big draw for audiences, supplying not just the music but also some of the audio “special effects” as the action unfolded onscreen. Vaudeville acts touring through the region also stopped there with a variety of comedy, music and dance.
Like many old movie houses, the focus changed once films came with their own soundtracks. After Chemung River flooding damaged the building in 1946, it was remodeled with a CinemaScope screen and new seats, and it reopened as the Elmira Theater in 1952. Most of the opulent touches had been removed, such as the theater boxes, and nearly everything was repainted white so it wouldn’t distract from the films.
The venue time as the Elmira Theater featured mainly film showings. It was flooded during Hurricane Agnes in 1972. (Photo: Provided)
When Hurricane Agnes’ torrential rains overflowed the Chemung again in 1972, city planners nearly ordered the theater to be demolished in favor of a new highway. A group of arts minded citizens raised $750,000 to save the facility and rename it for Elmira’s favorite adopted son Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, who spent summers in the region and is buried here.
These renovations accommodated what became the Clemens Center Parkway by losing the theater’s second balcony, shrinking capacity by almost 600 seats, and it also upgraded the stage lighting and audio systems. Resident theater organist David Peckham oversaw the restoration of the Marr Colton organ, which required a new console.
Jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald performed the first official Clemens Center concert in 1977, and hundreds of concerts, plays, musicals, dance performances, stand up comedians and other acts have followed.
After early leadership from Arnold N. Breman and Robert A. Freedman,
Tom Weidemann arrived in Elmira in 1983 to become the theater’s third executive director, and he loved it so much that he stayed in the job for the next 32 years. When he started, he inherited a “nice, clean theater” with “a good set of dressing rooms” and a stage that was “not terrible” considering the wear and tear it had seen over the years.
“The community support was really strong, and there were community leaders on the board of trustees who were really dedicated to the community and to the theater,” he said in an interview earlier this month. “They really made everything come together and work.”
Hal Holbrook performed as Samuel Clemens in “Mark Twain Tonight!” several times at the Clemens Center, including 2010. (Photo: File)
Weidemann’s memories accumulated during three decades are too numerous to share here, but he particularly appreciated the Clemens Center’s relationship with actor Hal Holbrook and his notable performances of “Mark Twain Tonight!” over the years.
Performers appreciated the welcome they received in Elmira, and part of that was about giving them the space they needed to prepare to entertain audiences no matter how famous they were.
“We had a general rule that no one was to go backstage unless there was a particular reason,” Weidemann said. “Neither I nor anyone else just went backstage to say hello unless we were invited backstage. The performers responded well to recognizing that we knew they had a tough job ahead of them and that we were there if they needed anything, but we weren’t going to be hanging on and bothering them just before a performance.”
As executive director, Weidemann oversaw several additions and renovations to the Clemens Center. In 1987, the 2,500 square foot Mandeville Hall was added as a multi use “black box” theater suitable for drama, recitals, community functions, lectures and seminars. Some may know it best as the home of Elmira Little Theatre productions (including “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” which opened this weekend).
Tom Weidemann was the Clemens Center executive director from 1983 to 2015. (Photo: FILE PHOTO)
In 1999, a $7 million Phase I project added a new lobby, box office, patron amenities and landscaping, as well as new heating, electrical and air conditioning systems. Then in 2007 08, a $19 million Phase II project renovated the Powers Theater from top to bottom by expanding the stage, upgrading the seating and restoring the decor as closely as possible to how it looked in 1925. Backstage areas also were modernized with an eye to attracting the latest productions.
Binghamton based NAC Entertainment, which presents Broadway tours in cities around upstate New York and northern Pennsylvania, partnered with the Clemens Center in 2008.
“After the renovation and restoration, they had a commitment to increasing their programming and events there,” said Albert Nocciolino, president and CEO of NAC. “Along the way, they saw they could use some support with the programming. Since we were in seven or eight other markets, it was a natural fit for us right down the road. We always felt they were a separate community, different from Binghamton, so it wasn’t a conflict and could help with booking for both markets and other markets upstate.”
Weidemann departed from the Clemens Center in 2015 at age 65. After such a massive capital campaign, he said, it’s traditional in theater administration to turn over the reins to new leadership. (He did not stay idle long, though he now works as the executive director of the International Motor Racing Research Center in Watkins Glen.)
“After 32 years, I felt that the community, the organization and the board deserved an opportunity for a younger, fresher view on performances. The performers that I was familiar with and had gotten to know over the years, the audience for them was aging and dying out. There was a need for some fresh blood to look at some fresh programming opportunities and Karen Cromer certainly brings that to the center.”