Venue Profile: Oneonta Theatre, A Historic Vaudeville Theater Revitalized

The Oneonta Theatre, located at 47 Chestnut Street, just 100 yards away from Oneonta’s vibrant Main Street, is a true gem of a venue. Being situated in a college town, the theatre is just a hop, skip, and jump away from a wide array of dining options, as well as a plethora of bars. Consisting of two separate concert spaces, the larger of which can accommodate 900 people, and the smaller 200, the Oneonta Theatre is a unique and charming place to check out a show. The larger downstairs theater has a deep, tall stage, one that can accommodate a large band or the cast of a play, and the sloped floor typically has seats up to about two-thirds of the way down towards the stage, leaving the front of the floor open for boogieing down. The smaller upstairs theater features a stage that is not very much higher than the dance floor area, with seats sloping upwards towards the back of this space, and is slightly rounder than the space downstairs. An amazing sound engineer works with the theatre, making sure the sound is stellar in both of the differently configured theaters.

Designated as a historically significant building on the National Register of Historic Places, the Oneonta Theatre was originally built as a vaudeville theater in 1897, during a particularly happening time in Oneonta’s history, when the railroad ran through town. From its lavish first production of The Sporting Duchess (at a production cost of $50,000!) on February 28, 1898, to silent and talking films throughout the 19-teens and Roaring ‘20s, to the site of countless Oneonta High School graduations, this theater was a definite draw for both area residents and travelers from afar. Then, in the mid-1960s, the theater was slated to be wiped out as part of an urban renewal program planned for Oneonta, but fortunately a gentleman by the name of Harold DeGraw bought it and saved it from being destroyed, and invested his own private funds to rehabilitate the theater and storefronts. In 1979-80, the upper balconies were separated from the main theater, turning it into a two-theater “multiplex.” Live plays continued to be performed here, as the Orpheus Theatre group used the downstairs performance space for their plays and musicals. That is how the Oneonta Theatre operated until about 1992, at which point the stage was actually abandoned, and the theater started to deteriorate, becoming more and more dilapidated with each passing year.

In 2009, the current owner, Tom Cormier, took ownership of the Oneonta Theatre. Interestingly, the theater was actually not what motivated him to buy the building. He became interested in the property for the front part of the building, which consists of three storefronts and six apartments, but when he looked more closely into purchasing the property, he discovered that it actually contained two buildings, one of which was the dilapidated theater. Initially, Cormier said the theater was in such bad shape that it was impossible to stand inside it for more than a half hour without having respiratory issues from all the mold and pigeon poop that had built up over the years, but thankfully, the non-profit group Friends of the Oneonta Theatre, to whom Cormier rents the theater for $50/month, were able to convince him to fall in love with the theater and put in the time, money, and effort to rehabilitate it. During the renovations, Cormier came across numerous hidden treasures, including a collection of signatures on the walls backstage from actors who had performed there over the years, and a complete newspaper found between the first and second stories from the day after a World Series game that took place sometime in the 1950s during which a perfect game was pitched! (He even mentioned that he and several of the employees have encountered ghosts, but he assured me they were all friendly.)

Having gone through extensive repair work, it can now once again be said that the Oneonta Theatre has truly lived up to its motto of “Showing Oneonta A Good Time Since 1897.” Some of the bigger acts who have been booked here since Cormier took ownership include Steve Earle, Arlo Guthrie, Chris Robinson, Blue Oyster Cult, Kansas, McGuinn & Sebastian, Little Feat, The Radiators, and the Zombies – quite the assortment! Cormier also likes to feature more local and regional acts, and has in fact helped out some local acts by booking them as openers for bigger names, and as a result of that, a couple of bands (including Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds) have landed national touring gigs! In addition to live music, the occasional cult classic movie can be viewed at the Oneonta Theatre. In the past few years, The Big Lebowski and The Rocky Horror Picture Show have been shown on the big screen, and the audience has come out in full garb. The Theatre has even provided suitable goodies during these movies, such as serving up White Russians (normally, only beer, wine, and a limited selection of bottled cocktail drinks are available at the bar located inside the lobby area of the Theatre) during The Big Lebowski, and handing out prop bags including rice, noisemakers, and toilet paper to encourage audience participation during The Rocky Horror Picture Show! The theatre also rents out its space for the occasional college event, and as such has hosted a few foam parties, the first of which completely trashed the floors of the theater due to the chemical composition of the foam, and which resulted in a scene reminiscent of a slaughterhouse afterwards, as the floors of the theater were red, and the red paint was streaming down the entrance hallway before heading out the door and down the sidewalks! But Cormier just turned what could have been a bad situation into good, and used the opportunity to strip the floors, since the job was already halfway done!

When asked about plans to expand or renovate the theatre, Cormier mentioned that he does have some changes in mind for this summer, but it’s too early to reveal those changes. He is in the process of looking for investors for this project, so if anyone is interested, please get in touch with Tom Cormier through the theatre’s website! Upcoming shows that have been confirmed at the Oneonta Theatre this summer include Rusted Root on June 27, Start Making Sense (a Talking Heads tribute band) on June 28, and Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds on August 22, but continue to check their website, as they are always booking new bands. And now, to quote theatre owner Tom Cormier, “We’re not the shiniest nickel around, but there’s a good vibe in this place! And the sound’s incredible. So, come to Oneonta, come visit us!”