AUBURN | Auburn's entertainment legacy is well-known. Where would Hollywood be, for example, if not for native son Theodore Case's discovery of sound-on-film technology? Before the era of the cineplex, several grand music halls thrived in the city, with copper and gold frescoed ceilings and multiple balconies, promoting appearances by the likes of Mark Twain, Buffalo Bill and Al Jolson.
Preserving the city's theatrical and motion picture cultural past brought four Auburnians together to create a documentary film about the rich yesteryear of the ornate, large theaters that brought business and entertainment under one roof.
"These (were) once opulent gathering places," said Mary Farrell, one of the film's creators.
Four members of the community group Save Our Schine: Citizens for the Betterment of Downtown Auburn spent 14 months poring over images of playbills, torn ticket stubs, posters and photographs to put together the approximately two-hour film, "Auburn Theatre City."
Laurel Auchampaugh, Todd Gaglianese, Arlene Ryan and Farrell were acquaintances through their work with SOS before embarking on the theatrical history project. By the end of the venture they forged warm, close friendships.
"We ended up not only as great friends, but with a wonderful historic document," Farrell said.
The focus of SOS is saving and renovating the Auburn Schines Theater at 12-14 South St., which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The theater opened for business Sept. 15, 1938. Schools and businesses closed that day as people flooded Genesee Street sidewalks to glimpse marching bands parade past the movie house, which was built in just seven months.
"The Auburn theater became the centerpiece of our city that night," Gaglianese said.
With more than 1,700 total seats to accommodate film-goers who sat before a 170-by-80-foot screen, in air-conditioned comfort, the theater was a marvel of a building. Brothers Louis and Meyer Schine, scions of an empire that built theaters throughout the country, erected the movie palace, which was designed by renowned architect John Eberson.
Eberson's desire to establish an out-of-this-world getaway for people eager to escape the realities of the Depression era were realized in the art deco theater, created in the streamline moderne style. On the ceilings and walls, custom-built light fixtures in the shape of celestial bodies — falling stars, moons and planets — lit the way for patrons.
"Our intent is to educate the community with what we have recovered about the rich, extensive theater history Auburn has," Farrell told a crowd of about 50 invitees to a Nov. 25 screening at Willard Memorial Chapel.
The film opens with an image of a colorful 1945 postcard where the vantage point is from South Street looking toward Genesee Street. Evocative images of the middle of the 20th century gently ushered viewers toward the historical scope of the film's subject matter.
The narration starts by discussing Auburn's earliest venues, such as the Columbian Theatre, which opened in the 1820s in the vicinity of North and Garden streets. To keep musicians warm, the theater boasted fireplaces in the orchestra pits.
Then came the Tivoli Music Hall in 1878 on State Street, which featured vaudeville shows. And there's the Genesee Opera House, a venue with a concave floor that opened in 1887 and, in 1896, became The Bijou before returning to its original namesake some time later.
Farrell explains that theaters often swapped physical locations, management staffs and names while ensuring the offer of live musical acts, dancing bear programs, pie-eating contests, burlesque shows, tragedies, comedies, silent film and then talkies.
At one point, the narration explains, during the gilded age of theater brought to town by the Burtis Family during the 1860s, special trains ran from Syracuse, Rochester and Geneva to Auburn, bringing patrons to the theater-filled city for a night on the town.
The film shines light on all the industry players, from the seating and curtain manufacturers that built their businesses in Auburn to the uniformed ushers whose careers guiding people to seats put bread on their tables.
George Bannon was an original usher at the Schines Theater on South Street in 1938. In the years since the theater closed, in the late 1990s, Bannon would stop into the building to revisit the cinema house time and water damage has since ravaged.
"I dropped everything to listen to his stories," said Gaglianese.
Today, the four filmmakers aim to show their film for community groups, senior centers, historic societies and schools.
"We hope we will help everyone realize what a rich theater history Auburn had," Farrell said. "As well as create an understanding as to why it is so important to save and preserve the last remaining piece — the Schines Auburn."