As was the case in many small towns around the country, a village wasn’t complete until it had it’s own Opera Hall. While it may seem like a funny goal for today’s communities, pleasurable pursuits were a sign of the wealth of a town, and having the time, and clothes, to attend the finer arts like opera was indeed a sign you had arrived.
Walton Theatre Audience
Around 1883, the Village of Walton finished building just such a place. Their site contained the village offices, a fire house and an opera hall. On the evening of Dec. 10, 1912, the hall burned to the ground, causing the fire bell to fall through the burned out structure and crack upon impact. That bell was ultimately recast and rehung at a cost of $200.
Insurance provided only $8,000 with which to rebuild, so in March of 1913, architect William T. Towner set off and designed the Richardsonian Revival hall that stands today. By June of that year, it was apparent that the appropriation was insufficient, so a referendum was scheduled for June 21, when residents were asked to approve another $15,000.
For the first time, women were allowed to vote in a general election, and the passage of the measure was dwarfed by the other headline details: “Referendum passes; women vote for the first time; only three ballots ruined!” The village hall would ultimately cost $57,460.67 to build, house the theater, the village clerk’s office and for many years, the Walton Fire Department.
Building progressed quickly, and on April 21, 1914, “Within the Law,” a professional/amateur production, opened to a standing room only crowd of approximately 1,500. Current seating in the main auditorium is set at about 400. The grand opening generated such interest in the area, that a special train from Delhi was added to the regular schedule to accommodate theater-goers. A picture of the event shows a packed house and balcony, and a live orchestra, with many people standing in openings in back of the audience and along the side aisles.
The theater was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, and on April 21, 1986, recognizing that the theater had fallen into disrepair, then-mayor Raymond Baldi established the Walton Restoration Committee to oversee the revival of the theater to its former glory.
The theater has gone through many phases over the years, hosting professional troupes of Vaudeville players and the likes of Tom Mix. Live productions alternated with movies, which were shown since September of 1914, but thrived under the hand of area theater mogul, William Smalley, who leased the space in 1923 and maintained it for many years.
Often, vaudeville circuit troupes came to the theater, and along with local actors, mounted lavish productions, both musical and dramatic. Pictures taken from the time reveal lush tableaux and costuming, all of which arrived with the troupe. Many area residents grew up in the theater during its heydays as a movie house. A local farmer remembers coming to the movies on Friday nights when other farmers, fresh from the barn would take advantage of their only night out for a quarter a ticket. “The smell in here was pretty ripe,” he recalls, “but you didn’t always have time to get cleaned up before you came out to the movies.”
One resident remembers going to the theater to hear Theodore Roosevelt. speak. She remembers a sense of great disappointment. “His voice was small and squeaky,” she recalls. “Not that of a Rough Rider at all!” Many residents recall their graduations and class nights, held on the stage of the Walton Theatre, and many reunions since have chosen to donate to the restoration of the theater.
Today the Delaware River Stage Company has been a frequent presence on the stage of the Walton Theatre, dedicating proceeds from its productions to support the restoration effort. In addition, Music on the Delaware also holds its musical productions in the theater, from chamber music, to a brass ensemble, to the American music of Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. These productions, as well as musical performances, fill the house and bring in the next generation of fans of the arts to the Walton Theatre. www.waltontheatre.org