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Vail-Leavitt History

Music Hall: A Historic Journey

Original research by Harold Smith, Jean Hallock and Sylvia Shaffran (circa 1980)
Revised & updated by Robert Barta (2014)

Of the three theaters which existed in Riverhead, New York, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, only one – the Music Hall – has come down to us. Miraculously escaping the wrecker’s ball due largely to its upstairs location over two lucrative storefronts, the Music Hall has survived not only all its contemporaries, but also a palatial “modern” theater built around the corner in 1920 and razed in the early ’60s. It is the oldest theater in downstate New York – 20 years older than the oldest theater on Broadway!

The Vail-Leavitt Music Hall
The Vail-Leavitt Music Hall

Early History – The Vail Years (1881-1908)

Located on what today is known as Peconic Avenue (then called Bridge Street), the Music Hall was the talk of the town when David F. Vail, a venturesome local lumber dealer built it with the help of his son, George M. Vail.

The Long Island Traveler of April 22, 1881, noted: “Numerous improvements are being made throughout our village. The large brick building is rapidly nearing completion and when finished will be a marked improvement over the old rookeries which now front on Bridge Street…” A week or two later, the Traveler reported that “Mr. J. W. Flack will soon start embellishing and frescoing the interior.” Mr. Flack was a well-known Eastern Long Island interior decorator of the period, and an expert in the application of gold leaf. Even today at Music Hall, we can see gold highlights at various places in the restored interior.

After a number of previews, including a strawberry festival and musicale, Music Hall opened with fanfare on October 11, 1881. The event was a concert with both professional and amateur talent, sponsored by the Rough & Ready Engine Company of Riverhead. A smashing success, the show continued until 3 A.M. It was then that the firefighters were called to duty – to extinguish a blaze in a barn over on Osborne Avenue, owned by Mr. Osborne. Off they went, according to the Riverhead News, “grabbing such hats as they could get” from the coat hooks still to be seen on the walls of the theater – and “leaving the ladies to wend their way home as best they could.”

The Mozart Orchestra, under the direction of Professor Arthur M. Tyte, was a staple of early-day entertainment at Riverhead’s Music Hall. Prof. Tyte’s family still survives in the area.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was Music Hall’s first professional play and was produced at the Music Hall by several companies during its early years. One of the earliest performances included a wondrous curiosity billed in the programs as “Edison’s Electric Parlor Lamp.” Since electricity was still in the future as a common lighting source, we can only surmise that the lamp must have been battery-powered. This was Music Hall’s first connection with the name of Thomas A. Edison.

Main Stage
Main Stage

In the ensuing years, Music Hall played host to a variety of events. A lecture by Theodore Tilton entitled “The World of Tomorrow,” so stirred the Music Hall audience that the editor of the Long Island Traveler called for the founding of a group to present more such offerings and to give the proceeds to the Riverhead Reading Room, located on the top floor of the yellow-brick Bank Building still standing on Main Street. This was the start of the Riverhead Lecture Society, which in turn brought about what we know today as the Riverhead Free Library.
In April of 1885, a fundraising event at the Music Hall contributed to the construction of the pedestal of the “Bartholdi Statue,” according to a Traveler item. Mrs. Frank Baird, a local art teacher, engaged the hall for an “art reception” with the proceeds to be allotted to what we now know as the Statue of Liberty.

Music Hall audiences and sponsors came from all over the surrounding area to see the many and varied attractions presented in Riverhead’s beautiful little auditorium. On one occasion in 1885, Quogue residents – then a day’s carriage trip away from Riverhead – presented a “literary and vocal entertainment” for the benefit of the Quogue Church Society. Perhaps in return, the Riverhead Harmonic Society gave a benefit at Music Hall “for repairing the road to Quogue.”

Lighting at Music Hall in those early years primarily came from gaslight.  The Music Hall had its own gas plant behind the theater, gas fixtures were placed all along the horseshoe balcony and gaslight continued at the Music Hall until the advent of electricity there in July of 1888.  In today’s restored theater, you can still see original gas jets in place near the stage just below the balcony.

In 1898, the Music Hall was the scene of a political convention, drawing people from all over Long Island. The building was designated as headquarters for one of the political parties, receiving election returns by telephone from the county and state.

The Improved Order of Red Men, a fraternal organization founded by George Washington for the purpose of assisting Native Americans in their problems with incoming settlers, engaged Music Hall for a six-year period beginning in 1900.

In 1908, Thomas A. Edison’s famous name returned to Music Hall for the first time since “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” when Edison’s “moving picture show” made its Riverhead debut. While it was not the first movie shown in Riverhead, it featured a dramatization of the famous Harry K. Thaw murder case “depicting all phases from the shooting to the incarceration of Thaw in Matteawan.”  Taking no chances, the management thoughtfully added “a number of first-class vaudeville acts.”
Later that year, George M. Vail, now sole owner of Music Hall, sold the building to Simon Leavitt.  Leavitt’s Men’s Shop was established on the building’s ground level, where it would serve the community into the 1970’s as downtown Riverhead developed into one of Suffolk County’s premier commercial shopping districts.  Eventually, Simon turned over operation of the business to his son, Theodore Leavitt.  Some local residents recall it as a long-time local outlet for purchasing Boy Scout uniforms and supplies.


The Leavitt Years (1909-1978)

From 1909 on, Music Hall became known as the Lyceum Theater – the Broadway theater of the same name had been built that year and probably inspired the change – and as such presented moving pictures, vaudeville, occasional stock and road companies, and more rarely, concerts and dances.

It was about this time that the late Ted Leavitt, then a youth, remembered having met a young Western rope-spinner then performing on the Lyceum stage, who taught the young haberdasher the art of lariat-twirling in between appearances in the theater upstairs. The newspapers of the time mention no names – they rarely did single out vaudeville performers – but Mr. Leavitt was often heard to remember that the rope-spinner was none other than Will Rogers.

In 1912, after several successful years of vaudeville, film, lecture and concert bookings, the Leavitts leased their upstairs showplace to Franklin P. McCutcheon, a vastly experienced showman from Brooklyn. Under the McCutcheon management in 1914 came one of the Lyceum’s most exciting times.

For several years, Thomas Edison had been working on a new development in entertainment – talking motion pictures. At the same time, the talents of the great inventor were devoted to another experiment in nearby Quogue – extracting iron from the sands of that ocean resort. Edison’s iron-from-sand experiments never proved successful, but talking pictures were destined for success beyond anyone’s wildest dreams – even though the final fruits of that success eluded the great inventor.

In 1914, an advertisement appeared in the Riverhead News to the effect that “The Eighth Wonder of the World” was coming to the Lyceum Theater in Riverhead – “Thomas A. Edison’s Talking Pictures.” The all talking program featured John J. McGraw, then manager of the New York Giants; Van & Schenck, popular musical comedy stars; a scene from “Faust”; Edison’s Minstrels; “Julius Caesar” and an all-star feature program. “No silent pictures shown,” declared the Lyceum ad.

PICT0066In its next issue, the Riverhead News raved about Edison’s experiment. “The talking movies at the Lyceum here last week was a show that greatly pleased large audiences,” stated the enthusiastic reviewer. “Most of the people present declared it a marvelous performance. The accurate timing of the words, music, dancing and various sounds with the pictures produced results practically perfect, and there was hardly any flicker to the pictures themselves. It was hard to believe that live persons were not on the stage contributing to the program.”

Thomas Edison’s experimental system, properly known as “Kinetophone”, was brought to the theater in an effort to raise capital and garner good publicity. It is known that Edison’s own technicians were prohibited from running the equipment in the unionized theaters of New York and other cities, resulting in an embarrassing lack of synchronization between the picture and sound at those showings. As a result, Edison chose to bring Kinetophone to the Music Hall as well as other local theaters.

Edison suffered a major setback when a fire broke out at his lab in West Orange, New Jersey in December of 1914. Many items relating to the kinetophone project were destroyed, although Edison did attempt to continue for a time. Ultimately, lack of investment, other projects, and his own advancing age caused the great inventor to abandon kinetophone. It would be more than a decade until “talkies” reached a mass audience, but the Music Hall remains as the only documented surviving original site of Edison’s experimental kinetophone exhibitions.

In the years following the Edison experiment until the outbreak of World War in 1917, the Lyceum continued its successful career as a purveyor of motion picture entertainment. After the retirement of the elderly McCutcheon, Robert A. Blumberg succeeded as manager. Under his direction, the Lyceum negotiated exclusive contracts with the top film producers of the day – Universal, Metro, Vitagraph, Paramount, and several other giants now in obscurity.

But war’s outbreak, plus a foreboding announcement of a palatial new theater to be called the Riverhead Capitol, seemed to throw a pall over activities at the Lyceum. With the onset of World War I, news of the Lyceum’s screen and stage events seemed to fade from view. On July 4, 1917, we learn that a ball presented by Riverhead’s black community was featured at the old hall. After that, the records are silent.

It is known that after the war, the old theater was converted into the Imperial Restaurant, a lavish eating place. However, in 1925, that enterprise came to a sad end when a kitchen fire damaged an area that had been the stage, but was prevented from spreading elsewhere by a wall that had been erected between the stage and the auditorium. Thus were preserved the ornate box tiers and the notable horseshoe balcony as well as the elaborate plaster moldings of the ceiling.

A short career as a pool hall and another one as a betting parlor (ending in an eviction notice from the Leavitts) were the last public activities in Music Hall. A fire, unruly pool sharks and shady bookies were enough for the owner, who vowed from then on nothing would occupy the space over his store but storage…and that was the way it was from 1925 until 1978.

Around 1967, Ted Leavitt told Harold Smith about the theater over his store upstairs. Both men were too busy to evaluate the old showplace – Mr. Leavitt with his men’s wear business, Harold with his printing establishment around the corner, but Smith’s interest was piqued – he had been a veteran actor dating from 1929.

Finally, when a date was arranged, Smith was astounded. Here, perfectly preserved (save for the stage floor which had been removed for the kitchen) was a late 19th century opera house, the kind once prevalent across small-town America, but now a rarity, so precious that the few remaining examples are as scarce as prized jewels.

At first, Mr. Leavitt was reluctant to allow the present-day public to see his old theater. It was only after much persuasion by Mr. Smith that he consented to letting small groups of visitors climb the old stairs to view this glimpse of Riverhead’s past.

Preservation Efforts and Re-Opening (1978-2003)VailLeavittAudienceViewRearLeft

Present-day Riverhead’s first look at the 1881 Music Hall (the name of Lyceum had by then been abandoned) came at the time of one of the early Riverhead Country Fairs.  “No such place exists!” was the contention of some old-timers until they came up and saw for themselves. There it was – crying out for restoration.

As an early member of Riverhead Townscape, Smith succeeded in interesting the membership in establishing a sub-committee to revitalize the old Music Hall. A first meeting of the new group was held in November of 1978. The committee’s activities broadened and it was not long before Townscape decided that its offshoot should become an independent body, providing sufficient funds for its incorporation as such.

An application was made to the Riverhead Town Board for funds for acquisition of the building. At first, it was proposed that the Town buy the building and appoint a board to run it. The Town Board demurred and proposed instead that the new corporation, the Council for the Vail Leavitt Music Hall, accept the building through a HUD block grant arranged by the Town of Riverhead’s Community Development officer, Robert Schemer. This was accomplished in April 1982.

In that period, the Hall’s Council raised over $100,000 in cash and in-kind contributions to operate and restore Riverhead’s historic hall.  In September 1985, after several years of work on applications and interviews, the Music Hall was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The first phase of Music Hall’s restoration began with the opening of the Music Hall Mini-Cine in the former Leavitt’s Men’s Shop in 1984. Prior to the opening, Council members volunteered their services in rebuilding the former haberdashery into an 84-seat cinema. A generous contribution from a council member provided the funds for the purchase of theater chairs from the old Freeport Theater which was to be razed. A Laurel & Hardy Film Festival opened the Music Hall Mini-Cine in the spring of 1984. Revival films were very popular in the early ’80s, and it seemed the public couldn’t get enough of Bogart, Gable, Garbo, Monroe and perhaps most especially, the MacDonald/Eddy operettas.

By the 1990’s the advent of home video spelled the end of revival films in theaters, and the Council was finding it increasingly difficult to maintain & operate the Mini-Cine profitably. As a result, upstairs restoration was put on hold.

Recognizing the importance of the Vail-Leavitt to revitalization of downtown Riverhead’s arts district, the Town Board and supervisor Vinny Villella allocated $150,000 of mitigation fees received from construction of the Tanger Outlets specifically to restoration efforts at the Music Hall. Unfortunately, disagreements within the Vail’s board resulted in lack of a cohesive plan and direction for several years. Town government, growing impatient with the lack of progress, would not release allocated funds until a viable plan of action was presented to them.

PICT0078In early 2002, after public hearings called attention to the cause, several new members joined the Council. Bob Barta, a local college professor and avocational performer, joined the board and was able to reopen discussions with supervisor Bob Kozakiewicz and the town board, garnering key support. Mr. Barta would quickly become vice-president, and since 2005 has been president of the Vail-Leavitt board.

Another notable addition to the Music Hall was Vince Tria, the owner of local radio station WRIV. A former general contractor, Tria became the organization’s treasurer and brought his experience in engineering and local politics to bear on the restoration project.

In just under a year, major renovation took place including pouring of a foundation floor, fine carpentry restoration, construction of restrooms and a dressing room, carpeting and flooring…a complete overhaul of the Music Hall.  Modern heating and air-conditioning were installed while maintaining the Music Hall’s original interior decor. To supplement air flow, ceiling fans were added which are faithful reproductions, cast from original 1895 fan fixture molds.

The Mini-Cine was converted into a “black box” theater suitable for limited presentations or intermission-style receptions. A new archway was built to permit direct access from the downstairs lobby to the grand staircase, as well as a cloak room and office space.

The Music Hall’s exterior received attention as well. Originally, the Hall’s brick walls were unpainted, while its cast iron first-floor front sported a coat of gray-blue. Research and expert consultation advocated repainting the exterior rather than attempting paint removal which could damage the soft brick. A rear entry ramp, along with an elevator, made the Music Hall handicap-accessible for the first time in its long history.

After spectacular interior painting by local artisan Mary Cox and restoration of historical stenciling by Sherrie Netusil-Barta, the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall re-opened in the summer of 2003.  Since then, it has hosted numerous performances by local and internationally recognized performers and serves as a symbol of Riverhead’s cultural and artistic heritage.

The Vail-Leavitt Today (2003- )

Internationally noted performers who have graced the Vail’s stage include:

* Leon Redbone * Lee Konitz * Bucky Pizzarelli * Teddy Charles * Sam Taylor
* Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton * Jim Kweskin * Geoff Muldaur * Peter Tork * Pete Best
* Frank Vignola * Chad & Jeremy * Jeff Barnhart * Toby Walker * Rosie Ledet

…along with an equally stellar list of regional talent too large to enumerate.

The Music Hall today proudly features a mixture of unique theatrical, musical and cultural experiences year-round. From 2006-2012, the Vail-Leavitt produced the annual Riverhead Blues & Music Festival as fundraising event.  The Music Hall also serves  as a site for public meetings including candidate debates, community forums and inaugural ceremonies.

The Council continues its fundraising efforts to further support this original and distinct community treasure.  We greatly appreciate your support and patronage.

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