Theater History

Not long after the Civil War, British immigrant and successful merchant James Collingwood had a vision for his adopted city of Poughkeepsie. He dreamed of building a grand theater for his community – a place where fellow citizens could gather together to enjoy splendid entertainment in a magnificent setting.

In 1868, Collingwood’s dream became a reality when construction began at the site of what was once a branch of his coal and lumber business. Eight months and half a million bricks later, the Collingwood Opera House opened for its inaugural performance on February 1, 1869.

That night, eager guests in all their finery flowed through the lobby, where horse-drawn coal wagons once rolled, for the Citizens Complimentary Concert featuring the Eastman College Band and musical artists from New York City. The audience was thrilled, and local reviews hailed the Collingwood as “just right” in appearance, comfort, and adaptation to the wants of the community.

The Collingwood Family owned and operated the theater for the next 50 years, presenting outstanding shows that featured celebrated stars of the day such as John Philip Sousa, Ruth St. Denis and Edwin Booth. And the quality programming continued well into the 20th century with performances by the likes of Polish Pianist Paderewski, Isadora Duncan, and Gilbert and Sullivan.

Then, in 1923, the theater was sold and converted to a “combination house” that showcased Vaudeville performers, stock and dance companies, and silent movies. It was renovated and reopened with a new name – the Bardavon – after the original Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare.

The prized Wurlitzer pipe organ was specially designed for the space and installed in 1928. It is presently the only example of a theater organ still playing in its original location between New York City and Albany, and one of just a few still surviving in the U.S.

Over the next few decades, the Bardavon thrived and evolved with the times. From the 1930’s through the 1950’s, important movies opened first on its screen, and it regularly served as a test theater for Broadway productions.

Throughout its long history, the Bardavon has often been a meeting place for important local and national civic and community events. The auditorium has filled for political rallies, school graduations and lectures. Prominent figures such as Mark Twain, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Theordore Roosevelt have made special appearances. Andrew Carnegie attended a celebration for the laying of the cornerstone for the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge – now the world’s longest pedestrian river-crossing and our neighbor, the Walkway Over the Hudson.

By the 1970’s, audiences had begun to dwindle as more and more movie theaters opened in suburban malls. Unable to compete, the Bardavon closed its doors in 1975 and was slated for demolition. But concerned citizens who valued the Bardavon’s history, beauty, and role as a cultural anchor for the community rallied together to halt the destruction. A not-for-profit group was formed, the theater was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and revitalization began. By 1979, the Bardavon 1869 Opera House was in business as a performing arts center once again.

Today a premier Hudson Valley destination, the Bardavon holds the distinction of being the oldest continuously operating theater in New York State, and one of the oldest in the entire country. And James Collingwood’s generous public spirit lives on as the Bardavon continues to delight the community with its proud history, breathtaking architecture, and outstanding programming for all to enjoy.