WALTON, NY –
The Walton Theatre stands tall with its red brick and white columns. Built over 100 years ago, it’s a relic of a bygone era, but still very much the center of a community.
Inside the lobby, we’re greeted by Jim Richardson and Lisa Favret… and the sound of a table saw humming above our heads. Restoration work is currently going on in the balcony.
“We’re putting in new seating,” says Favret, “And the wings, we’re putting in some high top tables and chairs.”
Favret, Richardson, and the crew working upstairs are part of the Walton Theatre Preservation Association, a group formed to restore the old theater to its former glory.
The theater was built in 1914 to replace one that burned down on the spot two years earlier. On opening night, it’s said it was standing room only, with over 1,000 people packed into the theater that only seats about 500.
The theater attracted traveling acts and also screened films. The building was, and still is, owned by the village.
“And that was not unusual at that time because theaters were so important as a community thing,” says Richardson.
It still is. It’s community members like Richardson and Favret who keep the theater running. The efforts to start restoring the building started in 1986. The building was added to the National Register of Historic places in 1984.
“It was in such disrepair,” says Favret.
The restoration turned into a sort of treasure hunt, with things being discovered along the way that had been hidden over the years.
Cleaning the walls of layers of cigar smoke revealed beautiful hand-stenciled designs. When crews were refurbishing the lobby, they found original stained glass windows that had been covered over with black velvet to darken the theater for movie showings.
“That was a really good find,” says Favret.
Downstairs in a dressing room, 1920s and 1930s graffiti was discovered. A wooden plank on the dressing room wall is signed by acts who performed at the theater. Richardson says they researched some of them. A group called Si Tompkins and his Rusty Reubens brought their cowboy musical and vaudeville act to the theater in the 30s. They signed the board, and, below their names, listed the call letters for radio stations they also worked on.
“Shows would come in on the train, do a little show, head out the following morning,” says Richardson.
Signatures from traveling acts from the 1920s and 1930s are still on the walls in a backstage dressing room.
Up a winding, spiral staircase that takes you high above the stage, there are more dressing rooms. Looking up, you can see the remains of pully systems that would have been used for sets.
Richardson says the original stage was much deeper, but it was boxed in at some point to make it smaller. More changes happened when the theater became exclusively a movie house, no longer putting on stage shows. A screen went up, blocking the stage from use.
You can still see first run and re-released films at the Walton Theatre, but now they’re played on a retractable screen that can go up when they need the stage for other performances. A room upstairs is reserved for more intimate musical performances. They call that space the coffeehouse.
“We are really one of the luckiest villages to have this because people had to tear them down,” says Favret, “They couldn’t afford the projectors, they couldn’t afford to restore.”
So, what makes the Walton Theatre an exception? The community. Richardson and Favret say so many have given money and their time to keep the stage lights on. When they needed a new projector in 2012, checks came in from all over the country. They raised $100,000 in just five months.
It really does take a village.