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The Smith Blog

SMITH HISTORY BLOG: Smith’s Opera House or the Geneva Theatre?

by Gretty Hollister

Not many of us are lucky enough to change our names. For the most part, our names are a part of us. Buildings, on the other hand, tend to change names relatively often. This is true for our very own Smith Opera House, too. Over the course of its 125-year history, the opera house has had quite a few name changes.

Smith's Opera House, carved above the front archway

Smith’s Opera House, carved above the front archway

If you look at the façade, right above Booth and Shakespeare’s busts, you’ll see carved into the stone “Smith’s Opera House.” The ownership implied by the apostrophe obviously recalls the man who built it. From its opening in 1894 to around 1906 (McNally 4) the building was referred to as Smith’s Opera House. Therefore, as the façade is the only remaining original feature of the 1894 opera house, this name remains etched in stone.

In 1906, the building was used as part of the endowment for William Smith College, which would open in 1908. Hobart College (and the women’s college when it opened) took ownership of the opera house, and maintained ownership until 1912, when the property was bought by owner/manager B.B. Gutstadt. From 1906, the building’s official title dropped the possession and was simply known as the Smith Opera House, the way that a lot of the younger generation knows it today.

For a brief time from 1918 to 1919, Comerford Amusement Company leased the building and turned it into the Strand Theatre. There were Strands around Western New York, and the theatres were popular as vaudeville and movie palaces. One advertisement in the Hobart Herald from February 1919 advertises, “High Class […] Vaudeville and 3 Reels Pictures” at the Geneva Strand (“Strand Theatre” 3).

By 1920, the Smith was Smith Opera House once more and it remained this way until Schine Enterprises, Inc. decided to renovate the opera house in 1929. By the opening in 1931, the only piece of the original building that remained was the façade, but the etched words were eventually hidden by a marquee advertising its new name: Schine’s Geneva Theatre.

1965 began a long line of owners, but the name, for all intents and purposes remained the same. If you don’t call the Smith the Smith, chances are you know it as the Geneva Theatre, where for a couple dollars, you could spend an afternoon watching movies and enjoying slightly-more-than-a-penny candy.

And this is what the opera house remained until 1980, where a team of devoted Genevans saved and renamed it: Smith Opera House for the Performing Arts. This name recalled the building’s history, even as the FLRAC worked tirelessly to bring the Smith into the 21stcentury and ensure that it would remain a piece of Geneva’s cultural heritage for a long time.

Today, the Smith’s official name is Smith Center for the Arts, and it’s better than ever. Whether you call it the Smith or the Geneva Theatre or Schine’s (or something else entirely), drop by soon and enjoy an afternoon under the stars.

Works Cited:

McNally, Charles. The Revels in Hand: The First Century of the Smith Opera House October 1894-October 1994. Finger Lakes Regional Arts Council, 1995.

“Strand Theatre advertisement.” Hobart Herald (Geneva), 19 Feb. 1919, p. 3.