Frisbie & Sawyer Opera House

Public Square,
Holley, NY 14470

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The Frisbie & Sawyer Opera House opened on the evening of Monday, July 2, 1888, with performances by vocalist Lida Holden and the Criterion Comedy Company. Admissions for the grand opening were 50, 35 and 25 cents. The proprietors were Charles H. Frisbie and his brother-in-law, Henry Sawyer. Frisbie’s father was Hiram Frisbie, one of Holley’s founding pioneers, who had arrived in 1828 and purchased a large portion of the land that would later comprise the village. One such parcel was the corner lot on the southeast side of the Square, opposite the intersection of Thomas Street and State Street, passed down to Charles and Henry from Hiram’s estate.

Shortly after a fire ravaged the block of storefronts that had stood on the site in April of 1887, plans were drawn up for a new commercial structure with two storefronts at ground level and a well-appointed Opera House to occupy the entire second story. Seating capacity was expected to be between 500 and 600, including an upper ring of gallery seating expected to hold 200 persons. Work commenced on the structure in September, 1887. Roofing was completed by local tinsmith T.D. Matson in November and finishing touches to the storefronts were being applied by January of 1888. By May, the noted Chicago firm of Sosman & Landis were contracted to provide the scenic artistry for the stage setting and the house was ready for seating to be installed.

An article in the June 28, 1888, edition of the weekly Holley Standard newspaper noted that the stage facilities at the new opera house included ample room in the wings for changing of scenes, of which there were eight sets of flats. The paper continued, “The parquet is seated with an oak folding opera chair. The chairs are easy and present an attractive appearance. The entire seating capacity is around 600. Good ventilation is secured by registers in the chimney flues and a large ventilator in the center of the ceiling. These, with the numerous windows on two sides of the hall, will provide ample circulation of air and keep the house comfortable in the warmest weather.”

Programs at the Opera House ran the gamut from Shakespearian drama, Gilbert & Sullivan operas, vaudeville, minstrel shows, speaking engagements, even local functions and meetings. On October 21, 1897, the Holley Standard noted the presentation of “Kline’s Lumiere Cinematographe,” on three successive evenings that week. It is likely that moving pictures had been demonstrated at some point earlier, since the article also called attention to the “wonderful improvements” that had been made to “overcome the defects in former moving picture entertainments.” Pictures were to be shown in “natural color, no flickering” and accompanied by “phonographic attachments” to reproduce sounds.

Various moving picture “specials,” such as the Cinematographe and Percy’s Animatiscope, would continue to roll through the Opera House as they toured the country through the turn of the century. Eventually, in September, 1907, local photographer Frank L. Weller would enter into a partnership with Charles Frisbie to run a regular and permanent moving picture program at the Opera House. The latest projection equipment was installed and the very first reels of film were exhibited to a paying audience on Wednesday, September 4, 1907. Movie programs were scheduled for Wednesday and Saturday evenings, with titles changing each night and an admission price of just 5 cents. By the following month, the program was expanded to include matinee hours on both days, in order to accommodate visitors from surrounding towns who were unable to remain for the evening presentations, and by November, the enterprise was advertising itself as the “Holley Moving Picture Theater.”

Weller would eventually go on to open his own motion picture theater, the Orpheum Theatre, a block to the north of the Opera House in October, 1911. Film programs would continue at Frisbie & Sawyer’s for a number of years, alternating or in conjunction with various live performances, despite competition from the newer Orpheum Theatre, and its successor, the Lyric Theatre.

In August, 1914, Charles Frisbie, wishing to pursue retirement after managing the Opera House for nearly 27 years, leased the theater to Herbert Hudson, Jr. of nearby Albion, NY. However, items in the Holley Standard from November and December of that year indicate Frisbie was back on the job, booking vaudeville and managing operations. On Saturday evening, January 20, 1917, Charles Frisbie was finally able to walk away from the business when new lessees W. E. Nelligan and John Fisher took over operations, retaining the Frisbie & Sawyer name and re-opening the theater primarily as a movie house. Nelligan and Fisher had contracted with the Pathe Film service and hired Dalton’s Orchestra to provide live music. The new admission scheme was 10 cents on the main floor and 5 cents in the gallery.

The Opera House hung on for another few years, closing for good at some point between 1919 and 1921. An April, 1921, article in the Holley Standard reported that the Opera House block was remodeled for new tenants. An item from December 22, 1921, noted that over 200 chairs from the old Frisbie & Sawyer Opera House were purchased by the local school. Charles Frisbie finally sold the building in October, 1924, to the proprietors of the furniture store that had occupied much of the property for the past two and a half years, and retired with his wife to sunny Miami, Florida, that December.

In 1948, the building was converted into a lodge for the Loyal Order of Moose fraternal organization. Portions of the Opera House that still remained at the time were adapted into meeting halls and offices. The structure has since been demolished, along with the neighboring buildings in this blockfront of the Square, replaced with a modern standalone bank branch for HSBC.

Contributed by Ed Solero

Recent comments (view all 2 comments)

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on March 24, 2012 at 10:37 am

The Frisbie & Sawyer Opera House is listed under Holley NY in the 1897-98 edition of the Julius Cahn Official Theatrical Guide. It lists 550 seats. Frisbie & Sawyer Company, managers, business mgrs, and press agents. Electric illumination. Ticket prices 25 cents to 50 cents. Auditorium on the second floor. The proscenium opening was 20 feet wide X 16 feet high, and the stage was 20 feet deep. There was a weekly newspaper, the Holley Standard. The Downs House was the hotel for show folk. Railroad was the New York Central. The 1897 population of Holley was 2,000.

Ed Solero
Ed Solero on March 26, 2012 at 5:30 am

Thanks, Ron. There’s a website nominally about Old Fulton New York that contains scanned images from thousands of old newspapers that were published in cities and villages across New York State. The old editions of the Holley Standard found on that site were invaluable sources of information regarding the five Holley, NY, theaters I’ve been able to add to Cinema Treasures over the past few weeks. It should also be noted that Holley is a town situated along the Erie Canal.

I found editions of The Billboard, as Billboard Magazine was once known, from the early 1900’s and 1910’s, that listed the capacity for the Opera House at 650 seats to as high as 700 seats.

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