The festivities go on all through 2019 as the Bardavon marks its 150th anniversary as the oldest continuously operating theater in New York State. Designed by eminent local architect J. A. Wood and opened to the public on February 1, 1869, the Collingwood Opera House was a late addition to an office building that British-born entrepreneur James Collingwood had built in 1864 on the site of a coal and lumberyard that he owned on Poughkeepsie’s Market Street. Where the theater lobby now stands was once an archway allowing horse-drawn carriages to enter the building’s courtyard. The Collingwood family owned and operated the theater for the next 50 years, presenting such legendary names as Mark Twain, Buffalo Bill Cody, John Philip Sousa, George M. Cohan, Ignacy Paderewski, Jascha Heifetz, Ruth St. Denis, Isadora Duncan, Edwin Booth, Sarah Bernhardt, Douglas Fairbanks, John and Ethel Barrymore and Helen Hayes (in her first starring role).
In 1923, the theater was sold and converted to a “combination house” showcasing vaudeville performers, stock and dance companies and silent movies. It was renamed after the original Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare, a painting of whom was added to the space as part of a major renovation that shrank the capacity of the theater from 2,000 to 944 seats, but improved its acoustics. The Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ that still graces the house was installed in 1928. Broadway shows began using the Bardavon as a space for out-of-town tryouts, and it was also the site of many political rallies, often featuring members of the Roosevelt dynasty.
From the 1930s onward, the Bardavon became progressively more focused on the screening of movies, and by the 1970s the surge in construction of mall cineplexes was threatening its financial viability. It closed in 1975 and was slated for demolition, to be replaced with a parking lot.
Fortunately, community preservation activists rallied to save the historic building and formed a not-for-profit organization to keep it running as a theater and concert hall. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977 and back in business as the Bardavon 1869 Opera House by 1979, with some $10 million worth of restoration work proceeding in phases ever since. The Bardavon has been the home of the Hudson Valley Philharmonic for over 40 years.
Stellar names in the contemporary arts world including Joshua Bell and John Malkovich will be added to the ever-growing roster of world-class performers to have played at the Bardavon. For updates on these performances and sesquicentennial events in the works, visit www.bardavon.org.