The Smith Blog

SMITH HISTORY BLOG: Orchestras at The Smith

by Austin Jennings

The Final Show was on Wednesday, November 30, 1977. Even though “young, old, students, townspeople, all happily assembled amidst an aura of excitement and tradition” (Rogoff), I imagine there must have been tears in the audience. Especially once the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sarah Caldwell, left the stage for the very last time, the imminent threat of the Smith’s demolition must have weighed heavily on people’s hearts. Of course, we joyously know now that in the months after that performance the Smith Opera House was saved and its back taxes were eventually paid! It feels appropriate, though, that that landmark moment in this opera house’s history included orchestral music. From the very beginning in 1894, continuing through today, orchestral music has been an integral element of the Smith’s identity.

Even with the Smith’s opening performance of the play Monte Cristo on October 29, 1894, “Dousek’s full orchestra furnished the music [for the overture of the show], and they never played better” (“Smith Opera House Opening”). The conductor, Wenzel J. Dousek, was born in Reichenberg, Bohemia and first studied music at the Reichenberg conservatory when he was only 8 years old. He then graduated and became an assistant teacher by the time he was 11. Years later he immigrated to America and moved to Ithaca, NY in 1888, working with an opera house orchestra there (“A Serious Misfortune”). Dousek then looked to Geneva to continue that same line of work. With the construction of the Smith, he was in great luck! The new opera house provided him with lots of conducting work “at all performances for many years” (McNally 27). He worked at the Smith for 12 years, to be more precise, until he moved to Rochester as a church choir director and opera house orchestra conductor there (“Home Matters”). The legacy of the work that Dousek and his orchestra did at the Smith did not end with his leaving, however. From day one, he helped to solidify the Smith Opera House as a place for, among many other things, orchestral music.

Dousek’s orchestra served as the resident group in Geneva, while plenty of other touring orchestras performed at the Smith over the course of its history as well. The Pittsburgh Orchestra conducted by Emil Paur performed annually from 1904-1906, the New York Symphony Orchestra conducted by Walter Damrosch performed in 1911, the New York Philharmonic Society Orchestra conducted by Joseph Stransky performed in 1916 (McNally 93-95), and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra performed in 1922 with the Geneva Choral Society (“Annual Music Festival”), to name a few. With the reconstruction of the Smith into the movie palace, known as Schine’s Geneva Theater when it opened in 1931, one might assume that the building’s orchestral days were over. Despite its intended use to show motion pictures, though, Schine’s Geneva Theater also featured orchestras, like the Rochester Civic Orchestra (“Rochester Orchestra to Perform in Geneva”).

By the 1960s, Geneva Concerts was sponsoring events at the theatre, including orchestral concerts (“Forthcoming Lecture-Artist Series”). After the supposed “Final Show” of 1977 featuring the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, Geneva Concerts obtained a lease of the building and proceeded to hold three more concerts from the same group in 1978 (Fox). Eventually the fate of the Smith Opera House became more secure, and orchestral music simply continued to be a fundamental part of the theatre’s history, right up to this very day.