From Poli's Palace to The Hanover Theatre - A History of The Hanover Theatre for the Perfoming Arts

Page 1


Poli’s Palace to

The Hanover Theatre A piece of Worcester history evolves

page 2 • History of The Hanover Theatre

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, patrons enjoyed stage performances and feature-length movies screened to the accompaniment of a mighty organ. O ver 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, ever y 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

Opening night at The Hanover Theatre, March 14, 2008 (left) Bernadette Peters performs on opening night (above)

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 Ransom Clarke Taylor 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 however, a series of changes occurred in the Taylor family and the new theatre went up for sale in 1912.

Vision of a Showman

made New Haven, Connecticut his home base and rented 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

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 page 2 • History of The Hanover Theatre

A 1904 postcard of the Franklin Square Theatre

The Grand Theatre in its heyday (right)

Poli Theatre advertisement, circa 1912 (below)

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 per formers and scenery from New York and kept the theatres operating in the summer. Each city had its favorite stars, some of whom were more popular than the nationally known players. Sylvester Z. Poli 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 luxur y, 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 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 eyefilling 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 History of The Hanover Theatre • page 3

Annual newsboy event at the Poli. Once a year the Worcester Telegram and The Evening Gazette treated their newsboys to a free performance at the theatre, circa 1930.

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 experience. The tickets were affordable and the lure was irresistible. Droves of patrons frequented movie palaces as often as several times a week. Poli chose theatre architect Thomas page 4 • History of The Hanover Theatre

W. Lamb to design Poli’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 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 of theatres in

the United States and Canada, as well as 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 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 ac ts. A “flashlight ” photograph of the audience was taken before the showing of the feature film, “The Ace of Cads,” starring Alice Joyce and Adolphe Menjou.

Advertisement for Fox-Poli, circa 1930

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.” Poli’s Palace Theatre, circa 1927

“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

Changing Times and “Talkies”

Fox-Poli Palace, circa 1929

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. 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.”

page 8 • History of The Hanover Theatre

Loew’s-Poli Palace, circa 1964

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 sound-on-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. History of The Hanover Theatre • page 9

page 10 • History of The Hanover Theatre

A Grand Restoration Creating The Hanover Theatre In 2000, Worcester executive Edward P. Madaus, who 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 architect firm Lamoureux Pagano & Associates took on the challenge of design and reconstruction. 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 2,300 seat 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. A soaring two story glass pavilion was added, while the facade 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.”

The theatre's stage restoration, 2007 (left) The theatre ribbon cutting ceremony, March 2008 (right)

History of The Hanover Theatre • page 11

The restored chandelier (above) and the restored interior of The Hanover Theatre (below)

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 Theatre'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. This theatre, Lawrence said, has revived “the spirit� of all those who were a part of its storied past. It promises to play a role in American theatrical history for many years to come.

Organist Jonathan Ortloff at the Mighty Wurlitzer (right) A Wurlitzer promotional ad (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 is 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.

Rebuilding the organ chamber

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. The Hanover Theatre’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.” History of The Hanover Theatre • page 13

Special Thanks Susan McDaniel Ceccacci, Preservation Worcester Bruce Hager, Wurlitzer organ team, curator and theatre historian Don Phipps, Wurlitzer organ restorer, donor and technical consultant William Wallace, Worcester Historical Museum

Additional Sources “The Best Remaining Seats” by Ben M. Hall, 1961 “S. Z. Poli, From Wax to Riches” by Donald C. King, Marquee Magazine, 1979 Excerpts from the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, by Richard Duckett, 2008 “Theatre Organ,” Journal of the American Theatre Organ Society, 2015 Statements for the National Register of Historic Places by Susan McDaniel Ceccacci and Leslie Donovan Materials from the archives of the Worcester Historical Museum Photography provided by Dan Dionne, David Carson, © Erb Photography and E.B. Luce

For more information on ways to support and engage with us, contact Nel Lazour, director of development at 508.471.1770. • 2 Southbridge Street • Worcester, MA Worcester Center for Performing Arts, a registered not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization, owns and operates The Hanover Theatre and Conservatory for the Performing Arts. All donations are tax deductible to the fullest extent allowed by law. Reprinted August 2018

Issuu converts static files into: digital portfolios, online yearbooks, online catalogs, digital photo albums and more. Sign up and create your flipbook.