‘Incredible discovery’ inside Pratt Theater

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 21 April 2013 at 12:00 am

Old play advertisements, programs found from century ago

Photos by Tom Rivers

Programs and advertisements from theater shows in the late 1800s and early 1900s were discovered inside the Pratt Opera House in Albion on Saturday when a tin firewall was removed.

ALBION – The wall is covered with signatures of stage hands, and advertisements from comedy and theater shows in the 1890s and early 1900s. For more than a century, they were hid behind a tin barrier in the Pratt Opera House.

The tin was added around 1910 when the stage was expanded. Many visiting actors and actresses stuck advertisements and promotional cards on the wall behind the stage. They were sort of like business cards from that time. Many of the performers signed their names on cards with their photos and the name of their production.

“This is a treasure that is incredibly rare,” said Mark Scarborough, a professional theater manager and consultant who is working with Pratt owners Michael Bonafede and Judith Koehler. “The tin served as a time capsule that preserved everything.”

The tin was carefully removed Saturday afternoon while 33 Cornell University graduate students were in town, working on preservation projects in the opera house from 1882 on North Main Street. The theater was originally known as the Grand Opera House.

They re-glazed windows and repaired mortar on the sandstone walls of the third-story cavernous room. Bonafede was hopeful something historic would be behind the tin wall, and he wanted the Cornell students to be part of the unveiling.

But what was actually there wasn’t known until the metal was taken down. Bonafede was downstairs, working on the windows when he heard shouts of joy from the upper floor. The students were thrilled to see so many signatures and programs, dated from the 1890s and 1900s.

The theater advertisements still have vibrant colors, and remain largely intact.

“It was very exciting to see,” said Caleb Cheng, a Cornell planning student from near Oakland, Calif. “We saw the ’90s on the programs, and realized it was the 1890s, not the 1990s.”

The theater artifacts will be covered with a clear, fireproof material to be preserved long into the future and also stay visible.

Bonafede was in a buoyant mood Saturday evening.

“No one has seen this in 110 years,” he said. “It’s an incredible discovery.”

Bonafede and his wife are working to have the opera house, largely unused since the 1930s, upgraded to “theater in the rough” shape, which would allow performances without scenery and full-blown lighting effects.

“It will be like vaudeville,” Koehler said. “It will be carried by the quality of the performers.”

She and her husband have acquired curtains that they will soon to put up, and they plan to refinish the floor. They are working with an architect who specializes in historic preservation. Koehler said if they can secure a certificate of compliance, there could be performances in the theater later this year.

For now, they are happy with the discovery on Saturday, which Koehler called “a real gold mine of stuff.”