POLI PALACE HANOVER THEATRE a piece of worcester history evolves
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a piece of worcester history evolves with the times
From Poli’s Palace to The Hanover Theatre
The air was electric. Theatregoers, many clad in formal wear, strode along a red carpet while a searchlight lit up the sky. It had been years since Worcester had seen the level of excitement surrounding the opening of The Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts. A sense of accomplishment filled the evening. Hundreds of businesses, individuals and organizations had pulled together and raised $31 million to preserve a unique piece of the city’s history. The theatre had once been a splendid representation of the Golden Age of the Movie Palace, an era when luxurious surroundings were integral to the entertainment experience. The Worcester palace boasted shimmering crystal chandeliers, towering marbleized columns, mirrored walls and gilded ornamentation. In that sumptuous milieu, Opening night at The Hanover Theatre, March 14, 2008 (left) Bernadette Peters performs opening night (right)
patrons enjoyed stage performances and feature-length movies screened to the accompaniment of a mighty organ. Over time, television encroached and families moved to the suburbs, diminishing the appeal of a night out downtown. Worcester’s palace eventually was converted to a four-screen movie house. By the late 1990s, the building was vacant and up for sale. When the curtain rose again, on March 14, 2008, every seat was filled. A collective sense of awe rippled through the audience. Broadway singer and actress Bernadette Peters took the stage in a sequined gown and reflected the sentiment of many when she exclaimed, “The restoration is gorgeous!”
A Stop for Touring Companies
The story of The Hanover Theatre begins in 1904, when Ransom Clarke Taylor, a Worcester real estate developer, built the Franklin Square Theatre on Southbridge Street. It was a playhouse with 1,700 seats that drew Broadway touring companies. Celebrated French actress Sarah Bernhardt performed on its stage in 1906 during her American farewell tour. Taylor was a self-made man with a commitment to the future of Worcester. He was raised in Northbridge in modest circumstances. He made a fortune in the meat business and then, at the age of 37, began devoting his full time to real estate. He bought up more than half of the buildings on Front Street and some of the choicest blocks on Main Street. The city was in a period of great growth and prosperity. Progressive in his outlook, Taylor kept up with the times. He built Worcester’s first five-, six- and seven-story buildings and developed rentable properties for all kinds of enterprises. He had already built Lothrop’s Opera House on Pleasant Street when he constructed the Franklin Square Theatre. Within a few years, a series of changes occurred in the
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Taylor family. The new theatre went up for sale in 1912.
Vision of a Showman
Sylvester Z. Poli, a showman who was developing a chain of playhouses, grabbed the chance to add the Franklin Square Theatre to his properties. Poli ‘s life is the stuff of immigrant legend. He was 21 when he arrived in the United States in 1881. The young Italian was an accomplished wax sculptor with a talent for business. As he created wax models of kings, queens, stage stars and notorious criminals for a museum in New York City, he took note of what gave people a thrill. He soon moved on to open a series of dime museums featuring wax sculptures, curios, menageries and “freaks.” By 1893, Poli’s vision had broadened. Bawdy vaudeville acts were being cleaned up so the genre could become popular at respectable theatres. Poli made New Haven, Connecticut, his home base and rent-
F rom a 1904 postcard of the Franklin Square Theatre (left) The Grand Theatre in its heyday (right)
ed space where he could stage high-class shows featuring singers, dancers and comedians. A handsome, gregarious man, he was close to many of the early vaudeville performers, and they valued his advice. He was known for his frugality; the actors would often fit in an extra performance to please him. Poli was among the early showmen who recognized the potential of motion pictures, and he quickly added them to his programs. A family man, he was dedicated to providing clean shows at 10, 20 and 30 cents a ticket. Poli first arrived in Worcester in 1905 in the aftermath of a spectacular fire. He scooped up the burned-out property on Front Street and quickly built a theatre, where he offered popularly priced programs. In 1912, the same year he took over the Franklin Square Theatre, he purchased a half-finished playhouse on Elm Street. He completed construction and presented first-rate vaudeville shows and movies. Meanwhile, the Franklin Square Theatre became the Grand Theatre. Poli kept the road shows and added his own stock company, the Poli Players. In those
days, each theatre had a resident company of actors and actresses who performed popular plays. Having a local troupe eliminated the cost of transporting performers and scenery from New Poli Theatre York and kept the the- advertisement, atres operating in the circa 1912 summer. Each city had its favorite stars, some of whom were more popular than the nationally known players. Poli returned to Worcester in 1925, having developed a circuit of theatres that dotted the landscape from New England to Washington, D.C. Poli believed in keeping up with the times. He did not hesitate to update his theatres in cities such as Worcester, where he was particularly successful. “Theatre building is my hobby,” Poli said. “When my new theatre starts to rise out of the hole in the ground, I watch every move. The new house will possess something in the way of luxury, comfort and safety that its predecessor did not.”
The Movie Palace Craze
Not surprisingly, Poli was on the cutting edge of the movie palace craze, which
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spanned the years 1912 to 1928. He opened his first movie palace in 1913 in Springfield. He was so pleased with its design and popularity that he went on to develop a string of similarly expansive and lavishly decorated venues. An extreme social divide drove the eye-filling movie palace phenomenon. In the early decades of the 20th century, members of high society were fabulously wealthy. They resided in mansions amid luxurious trappings. They relaxed on yachts and vacationed in Paris. Legions of servants met their every need. In contrast, most people lived rather dreary lives. The vast majority of families did not have cars. Home entertainment consisted of board games, a Victrola or a radio. Many longed for a taste of a world completely beyond their reach. The showmen of the time understood the yearning and how to satisfy it. They offered bold stage shows and silent movies, with their inherent escapism, presented in extravagantly designed and decorated theatres. For everyday people, a visit to a movie palace was a magical expe-
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rience. The tickets Annual news boy event were affordable; the at the Poli. Once a year, paper boys from the lure was irresistible. Worcester Telegram and Droves of patrons The Evening Gazette frequented movie were treated to a free performance. palaces as often as several times a week. Poli chose theatre architect Thomas W. Lamb to design Poliâ€™s Palace in Worcester. The two had first collaborated in 1917, when Lamb created a dazzling new movie palace out of the shell of an old Poli theatre in New Haven. A Scottish immigrant, Lamb had studied architecture at Cooper Union in New York. His career gained momentum in 1909, when he designed a New York City theatre with supporting columns for the balcony behind the last row of orchestra seats, thus eliminating the so-called peek-a-boo chair. By 1916, Lamb had adopted the Neo-Classical style of the Scottish Adam brothers. He believed that it reflected the mood and preference of the American people. Lamb became one of the busiest and best-known theatre architects of his time. He built hundreds
Advertisement for Fox-Poli, circa 1930 (top) Poli’s Palace Theatre, circa 1927 (bottom)
of theatres in the United States and Canada, as well as in England, Australia, North Africa and India. He was the architect for the 3,000-seat B.F. Keith Memorial Theatre, now the Boston Opera House. Lamb initially resisted a trend toward overly ornate decors, which often featured Mediterranean and Oriental influences. Gradually, he relented, saying, “There was an underlying demand for something more gay, more flashy.” Poli apparently preferred Lamb’s earlier approach, so he had his architect use the clean lines of the Classical style in redesigning the Grand. The new show house had an imposing and capacious interior with unobstructed views from all 3,000-
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“S.Z. Poli has built a theater that will thrill not only the regular patron of vaudeville but even those who are interested in architectural beauty alone.” worcester telegram, 1926
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plus seats. It boasted a two-story lobby, a grand staircase and a magnificent dome encircled by gilded rosettes and molded plaster decorative elements. On opening day, in November 1926, the theatre was filled, and just as many people were outside hoping to get in. The program included a newsreel and five vaudeville acts. A “flashlight” photograph of the Fox-Poli Palace, circa 1929, along with a Poli Palace opening night advertisement
audience was taken before the showing of the feature film, “The Ace of Cads,” starring Alice Joyce and Adolphe Menjou. The critics were agog over Poli’s Palace. “S.Z. Poli has built a theatre that will thrill not only the regular patron of vaudeville but even those who are interested in architectural beauty alone,” a reviewer wrote. Another offered the view that “the architect has done an amazing thing. He has wrought into the everyday life of the community something of rare beauty and dignity and comfort.”
Changing Times and “Talkies”
Two years later, the “Grand Old Monarch,” as Poli had come to be known, put his chain of theatres and other holdings up for sale. He was 68 and had never recovered from the unexpected death of his son, Edward, following the removal of the young man’s appendix. At the time, Edward was being groomed to take over the business.
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Loew’s-Poli Palace, circa 1964
In addition, vaudeville was in decline and talking pictures were about to replace silent movies. The “talkies” introduced an element of realism at odds with the movie palace ambiance. The film critic Bosley Crowther explained it this way: “Music, talk and natural noises were not entirely in accord with the lavish unreality of the theatres or the pastiche nature of their lush stage shows.” Poli sold his holdings, valued at $26 million, to Fox Theatre Corporation, while retaining a 78 percent interest through first mortgage bonds. His theatres were renamed Fox-Poli. The Worcester palace was refitted with Fox’s patented soundon-film process. In 1932, as the Great Depression settled in, Fox declared bankruptcy. Along with other investors, Poli reassumed control of the chain. He then sold his share in 1934 to Loew’s Theatres. The Fox-Poli properties became Loew’s-Poli. From the 1940s through the 1960s, Loew’s gradually shed its Poli theatres,
selling the Worcester palace in 1964 to a New Jersey company. Three years later, Redstone Theatres Corporation of Boston purchased the theatre to remake it as Showcase Cinemas. Major portions of the interior were torn out to accommodate a panoramic movie screen and a projection room. The original finish was hidden behind unadorned new walls and ceilings. Floor slopes were adjusted, and new seats were installed to provide clear sight lines to the screen. The reconstruction included a new lobby and exterior. In 1973, National Amusements, Inc., formerly Redstone, did additional remodeling to allow the simultaneous showing of four films. The grand staircase and the balcony remained largely intact, but much of Lamb’s design was no longer evident. The ongoing flight to the suburbs and the loss of the mass movie audience to television continued to take their toll. The downtown movie complex closed in 1998 when a new multiplex cinema opened on the outskirts of the city.
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A Grand Restoration
creating the hanover theatre
In 2000, Worcester executive Edward P. Madaus, who had long had an interest in the performing arts, noticed a “for sale” sign on the once regal building. He envisioned a refurbished theatre drawing Broadway touring shows to Worcester. Madaus teamed up with his friend Paul J. Demoga to establish the nonprofit Worcester Center for Performing Arts. The organization gained ownership of the building for a nominal fee. Initial renovation plans were fairly modest. The goal of restoring the theatre to its once-elegant state gained momentum as funding from historic tax credits and contributions from a variety of sources flowed in. The largest donors were The Hanover Insurance Group with a $3 million naming gift and Mary C. DeFeudis with a $1 million contribution. The Worcester architecture firm Lamoureux Pagano & Associates took on the challenge of design and recon-
struction. Lamb’s original designs were not available, leaving the firm with very little to go on. The entire grand loge and the boxes back to the exterior walls were lost. The balcony had been completely altered. A skilled team of five took meticulous measurements of the scars on the exposed walls and studied historic photos. Eighteen months of steady work went into producing a set of drawings for the 2,300seat theatre. The construction work involved installing modern lighting and sound systems. The stage was expanded and other areas were enlarged to accommodate 21st-century touring shows. Artisans, making use of whatever evidence could be uncovered, gradually recreated the decorative elements and the color schemes.
The Hanover Theatre stage restoration, 2007 (left) The theatre ribboncutting ceremony (right)
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The restored interior of The Hanover Theatre
A soaring two-story glass pavilion was added, while the façade of the old Franklin Square Theatre was preserved. Michael Pagano, principal of Lamoureux Pagano, said that the undertaking “involved a complex combination of every design and construction problem you can name.” Since its triumphant opening, The Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts has drawn a wide range of admirers. It is viewed as one of the best restorations from the great period of American theatre building and has been honored with local, state and national awards.
New York actor Jeremy Lawrence recalled being both excited and intimidated the first time he stepped on the stage. The Hanover’s size and elegance made for a remarkable experience. Yet in the actor’s view, a great theatre has a distinct ambiance imbued by each of its past performers. The Hanover Theatre, Lawrence said, has revived “the spirit” of all those who were part of its storied past. It promises to play a role in American theatrical history for many years to come.
Acknowledgement & Thanks Susan Ceccacci, Preservation Worcester Bruce Hager, Wurlitzer organ team William Wallace, Worcester Historical Museum
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• Organist Jonathan Ortloff on the Mighty Wurlitzer (right) Rebuilding the organ chamber (below)
The Hanover Theatre’s Mighty Wurlitzer Don Phipps was thrilled when The Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts accepted his gift of a theatre pipe organ. It was no ordinary instrument. Phipps assembled it out of thousands of parts rescued from Wurlitzer organs that had been abandoned when movie palaces were razed starting in the mid20th century. When original parts were not available, he obtained historically accurate replicates. Phipps, an engineer, estimated that the project took 10,000 hours of work over a period of six and a half years. He calls the instrument his “magnum opus,” noting that it is the largest of its kind in New England. Phipps and his crew of volunteers started the mammoth task of installing the organ in November 2007. All of the components had to be put together, wired and winded. The instrument debuted at the theatre in March 2009. Hanover’s Wurlitzer has 2,495 pipes and is valued at more than $500,000. “It was a wonderful opportunity for me,” Phipps said of his collaboration with the theatre. “I like to think everybody got a good deal.”
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Sources Bruce Hager, theatre historian Michael Pagano, principal, Lamoureux Pagano & Associates Jeremy Lawrence, actor Don Phipps, organ restorer and curator “The Best Remaining Seats” by Ben M. Hall, 1961 “S. Z. Poli, From Wax to Riches” by Donald C. King, Marquee Magazine, 1979 “Theatre Organ,” Journal of the American Theatre Organ Society, 2015 Stories from the Telegram & Gazette by Richard Duckett Statements for the National Register of Historic Places by Susan McDaniel Ceccacci and Leslie Donovan Materials published by The Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts Materials from the archives of the Worcester Historical Museum Photography provided by Dan Dionne Photography, David Carson, Erb Photography, E.B. Luce, Worcester Historical Museum
2 Southbridge St, Worcester, MA 01608 877.571.7469 TheHanoverTheatre.org
Worcester Center for Performing Arts, a registered not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization, owns and operates The Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts. All donations are tax deductible to the fullest extent allowed by law. For more information on ways to give, contact Nel Lazour, director of development at 508.471.1770.