It’s time for a celebration. The Proprietors Ball, to be held on Saturday, April 22, marks the grand re-opening of New York State’s oldest theater, Hudson Hall in the Hudson Opera House. The 1855 auditorium held performances and lectures for decades, welcoming world renowned musicians, actors, and even a few notable politicians to the stage. The magnificent second floor was used for everything from theatrical presentations to fancy cotillions to poultry shows to art exhibitions. Abandoned in 1962, the building that once saw the likes of poet Bret Harte, abolitionists Henry Ward Beecher and Susan B. Anthony, and that adventuresome president, Teddy Roosevelt, might have been demolished — but for the efforts of visionary benefactors and ambitious association members who have worked diligently since 1992 to restore it.
Executive Director Gary Schiro came to the project in 1998 just after the first room — the West Room — was opened. Then primarily volunteer-run with part time administration employees, Schiro heard a lot of chatter in the community about the renovations and use of the building. “People thought, ‘When is it ever going to open?’” he says. “So the board rolled up their sleeves and started the Open the Door campaign. They’d scheduled a dozen or so events to take place that spring — readings, exhibitions, some talks and a concert or two. My challenge was to just program the heck out of the space. Rather than talking to people about what it could be or will be, let’s just show them. Let’s do as many different kinds of programs as we can to serve a diverse constituency. And they’ll begin to get the idea of what’s possible here.
“I came here knowing what a multi-arts center was, how it could fulfill this community-building, culture-spreading activity. That’s what we set about doing. Now we’re at a point where, if you add up all the classes and workshops, there are hundreds of things happening here in any given year, and all on this main floor. Now we’re finally going to take that activity and spread it out upstairs. Before, we only had an 80-person capacity for our concerts. It was nearly impossible to do any kind of dance or theater. Now we’ll have a 300 seat space, and can do bigger and better acts. And sell more tickets.”
The massive restoration project of the second floor performance space involved top to bottom attention, including the mezzanine, the raked wooden floor stage, five dressing rooms, a lighting and sound booth, a Green Room, a laundry, and accessible restrooms. On the exterior, masonry, windows, and doors have been restored, along with a new roof, fire stairs, and a new elevator tower to ensure accessibility.
Schiro is particularly proud of the proscenium arch surrounding the stage. A late 19th century addition, it has been restored by Bill Borman of DesignRed. “The stenciling and gilding of the proscenium was a donation from the artist who did all the work on it,” says Schiro. “Initially we were consulting with him, and he fell in love with the space and took it on himself. It was incredible. We could never have afforded something like that. He did a couple of experimental things at first to test it out the design. Once he decided how to do it and we were all in agreement, it moved very quickly — finished by one guy.”
The beauty of the renovated space creates an ambiance that nurtures the artists/performers and the audience. It seems as though it will up the ante on one’s experience. “Audiences and artists alike are going to be pretty jazzed to be up there.” Schiro explains that the whole block was mostly abandoned in ‘98 when he arrived on the scene. “There were only three businesses left. People were saying, ‘You’re crazy to invest in lower Warren Street. No one’s ever going to come down there.’ Within two years of us opening our first room, there were restaurants within paces of our front door. The street and almost all the buildings have been revitalized in the last 20 years.
“This is what smart cities are figuring out. You invest in the arts and put an arts anchor in a community, and all this other revitalization happens around it. Capital investments in inner cities have this multiplier effect. It’s like somebody sprucing up their house, and other people think it’s pretty nice. It’s catchy.”
As executive director, Schiro was challenged to slowly and determinedly expand programming while more rooms on the ground floor opened. “Up until this big project, by far the largest that’s ever been undertaken, we went through twelve other capital projects to renovate the first floor. Meanwhile, the programming grew, both in the building and in other spaces in the community–places where there might be very limited technical equipment available, such as in school auditoriums. It will be gratifying to finally have proper technical capabilities so we can do dance and theater and shows that have a tech requirement.”
New technological infrastructure means employing people who know how to handle these jobs. “That’s a whole new class of employees that we haven’t had in the past,” he says. “I don’t know how to operate any of that equipment. Same can be said for the basement which used to have two modest furnaces and a water heater. Now the entire basement is filled with equipment, and I have no idea how it operates.
“Before I came to the Opera House, I worked for the NY State Council of the Arts in a grant program. At the same time I was doing my own theater work in New York, teaching, and play-writing. So I thought this would be a place where all those hats I wore in New York would come in handy. I was not a construction manager at any point in my life, and didn’t know much about architecture. But I’ve learned a lot about both of those on the job.
“It would have been great if at any point in that journey someone would have said, ‘Okay here’s the money you need and you can do it tomorrow.’ The fact that we have grown slowly as our audience outreach and programming expanded — it’s turned out to be an advantage to learn as we’re doing. To get better and stronger and be ready to take on a project of this magnitude.”
The association engages in a robust mix of capital fundraising, foundation sources, government sources, individuals, and special event fundraising to sustain the organization. Additionally, ticket sales, concession sales, and rentals for corporate events and weddings — that’s all a part of what Schiro hopes will be a healthy mix that can keep Hudson Hall going. “We’ve got four weddings booked already, and more requests coming in almost weekly. The word has gotten out, and there’s a lot of interest.”
Schiro notes that the upcoming gala will be the first time many supporters have seen the space since it’s been restored. “The ‘proprietors’ were the founders of Hudson, but in a way it’s the supporters and fundraisers and people who have made all this possible. The already sold-out event will be a salute to the building in a way. At dinner we’ll be entertained by brief little vignettes and interruptions that harken back to some of the historical activities that took place here. We’re working with a talented director, R. B. Schlather, our Master of Ceremonies for the night, who is coordinating these. It should be very festive.”
A bit of rebranding has come about as the association considered changing the name from the Hudson Opera House to Hudson Hall. “It’s been an interesting journey, something we talked about for a long time. The name ‘Opera House’ has always been a bit of a barrier. Every week, people walk in and ask us when is Tosca on or what’s in our season. We’re a multi-arts center — sometimes we even have opera but we’re not an opera company — so those people would frequently leave disappointed. And then there are people in the community who’ve never stepped foot in the building because they think we’re an opera company. If they’re not interested in opera, they don’t want to come here. For people who know what a 19th century opera house was or who know the project and the diversity of everything we do, the name was not a barrier. But for everyone else, we’re either starting from a place of apology or explanation, and we’re worried about the cases where we don’t get a chance to do either of those things.
“This was a typical 19th century town hall. Many town halls in the height of the gilded age had a central gathering place for the citizens, and they competed with other towns for touring acts. You’d get that little economic boost for your town if performers and lecturers came to you. Towns wanted to have a decent performance hall, and that was how this one came to be, as well. It was City Hall until about 1880, when it was called the Opera House. The name was in use until about 1910, and then it went back to City Hall. Thirty years after the City moved out, a group got together to form a non-profit, buy the building, and they decided to use the cultural name—you couldn’t call it City Hall—and it was the right decision at the time.”
Schiro explains that the name change reflects the broader use and, with the addition of the elevator, broader access to the arts. “It’s for everyone. ‘Hudson Hall’ has a little more neutrality, and makes it easier to get people in the door. It’s not about erasing the past at all. When you walk in the door, it still says City Hall on the sidewalk. We preserved that ten years ago. We love the history of this building and the different ways it has served the community.”
The historical legacy of Hudson Hall is priceless — but the decades-long restoration has cost millions of dollars. At last completed, it stands as a vital resource that promotes the arts and plays a pivotal role in the cultural and economic health of the greater community, the more than 50,000 individuals and families served annually through performances, exhibits, talks, and free community programs like the upcoming Hudson Hall Community Day. Free and open to the public, the open house will feature workshops and performances by the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus.
Mark your calendar for Sunday, May 21 at noon and come join the Community Day fun. And check the website for future events and performances like the Classics on the Hudson series that will bring world class composers and musicians to the new stage, including Jon Deak, Eugenia Zukerman, Brooklyn Rider, Christopher O’Riley, Matt Haimovitz, Tim Fain, Roman Rabinovich, and many other greats.
Hudson Hall in the Hudson Opera House is located at 327 Warren Street in Hudson; for further information and ticketing call 518 822-1438 or visit http://hudsonoperahouse.org/.