Experiencing the past enriches the future
The opening of the Opera House in April 1891 was a gala affair at which guests from throughout the region were treated to a rousing performance of Josephine, Empress of the French. The evening also was the realization of a dream for Village officials whose plans for a municipal building overlooking Barker Commons had, from the beginning, included an Opera House. This was a dream shared by many late 19th-century communities where it was felt that, with the coming of the railroads, their relatively isolated citizens could now have access to performing arts and other events formerly available only in major cities. Fredonia's Opera House was an exceptionally large and elegant community theatre able to support such a wide range of activities that, for decades after opening night, virtually every citizen's life was in some way enriched.
Attracted by the excellent acoustics, many of the best late 19th and early 20th century entertainers performed and brought troupes here. The stage was graced by such well known personalities as Clara Morris, James O'Neill and Pat Rooney. With a blend of professional and local talent, there were variety shows, light opera and dramatic offerings including Hamlet, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, Ten Nights in a Barroom and Uncle Tom's Cabin. There were musical recitals and political oratory, graduations and religious services, and demonstrations of wrestling and cooking. Elderly Fredonians recall participating in talent shows featuring tap dancing and singing. From the first decade of the 20th century on, however, there was an increasing presence of motion pictures and, after 1926, while live performances continued periodically, movies dominated until the Opera House closed in 1981. The Opera House was saved from destruction in the mid 1980s when the Fredonia Preservation Society (which came into existence in response to the threatened demolition) and a corps of committed volunteers undertook what was to become a nine-year restoration of the theater. At a cost of more than $1 million and with more than 30,000 volunteer hours, the Opera House was returned to its earlier splendor and has operated year-round continually since its grand reopening in November 1994.