In preparing for the upcoming theater exhibit at the Fenton History Center, "From Stage to Talkies: Jamestown's Theatres," I was looking at a number of archival folders filled with programs and writings about the many theatres. An old manila envelope filled to bursting with architectural drawings was in the mix. It is the drawings for the Little Theatre complex that was to be built on Fairmount Avenue, where Brigiotta's Farmland Store is today. It had been a Howard Johnson's Restaurant.
The year was 1945. Since Little Theatre's birth in 1936, it had been using the Scottish Rite Temple, and is now the Robert H. Jackson Center. By 1945, they were in need of a larger space. Little Theatre had more than 5,400 members! It dropped to a consistent 4,000 after the war ended. It was determined it was time to build a new theater.
Also in the manila envelope is the capital campaign booklet designed from the drawings to raise $125,000 for the new theater. As you can see in the photo, the building in the sketch is the same as on the cover of the booklet. Beck & Tinkham was the architectural firm chosen to do the drawings. The firm is well-known in this area, especially for the many Lakeview Avenue residences they designed that are still standing today. By 1945, the firm had been in operation for 26 years. Ellis Beck and Norman Tinkham were graduates of the School of Architecture at Cornell University. They were able to work in New York and Pennsylvania. Some of their buildings still standing today are the Jamestown YMCA, Love School, Jamestown High School, Automatic Voting Machine, and Sunshine Packing in North East, Pa. They completed $1 million worth of contracts in 1946, the equivalent of $12.6 million in today's dollars.
The 1945 Beck and Tinkham sketch of the proposed Little Theatre building with the capital campaign booklet designed from the sketch. The architect’s information is on the left.
The campaign raised half of the needed funds. The Theatre board purchased the Howard Johnson's building. Repairs were made and a scenery shop was added. The office and rehearsal space was moved to Fairmount Avenue. It was then determined it wasn't feasible to raise the rest of the money to complete the project.
The show must go on. The plays continued at the Temple until 1968, when an acceptable offer was received to sell the Johnson property. It was enough to recover the investment and to purchase the Shea's Theatre, the current home of the Lucille Ball Little Theatre. Mr. Dipson, Shea's owner, gave the Little Theatre board a generous offer and donated to the capital fund as well.
Vaudeville, touring companies, homegrown theater, talent shows, silent films and talkies - all are part of Jamestown's long history of entertainment. The Fenton History Center's summer exhibit "From Stage to Talkies: Jamestown's Theaters" opens May 19, with a special preview on May 18 from 5 to 7 p.m.
The Hometown History column is presented by the Fenton History Center and The Post-Journal. Each Friday, a distinct item from the Fenton History Center collections or archival special collections will be featured. Learn about your hometown history through parts of its past.
If one of the items featured brings back some memories or brings up a question, please contact the Fenton History Center at 664-6256 or firstname.lastname@example.org to share your memory or get an answer to your question.
The purpose of the Fenton History Center is to gather and teach about southern Chautauqua County's history through artifacts, ephemeral and oral histories, and other pieces of the past.
Visit www.fentonhistorycenter.org for more information on upcoming events.
If you would like to donate to the collections or support the work of the Fenton History Center, call 664-6256 or visit the center at 67 Washington St., just south of the Washington Street Bridge.