The invention of the moving picture was a big deal at the turn of the 20th century! Watching fast moving images of people on a big screen, as opposed to watching actual people in real time on the stage took some getting used to. However, not everyone was quick to jump on the movie making trend, nor did everyone immediately see this new technology as an art form. In spite of this, there was a group of men in Poughkeepsie who believed that not only was this art, and the future for theater goers, but also that it was going to make them some money.
In 1917, the Elgar Company was formed, partly as a real estate venture focused on buildings for the arts. This company included men like Ely Elting, who owned a major clothing store on Main Street, and the president of Luckey, Platt and Co., William DeGarmo Smith. The company quickly changed its name to the Poughkeepsie Theatre Corporation, and rumors began to spread of their desire to build a major motion picture theater. While this was not the first theater built for the purpose of showing motion pictures in town, it was much larger than the previously existing theater. The first was a much smaller one on Liberty Street built in 1914 and appropriately named the Liberty Theater. That theater was designed by local architect Dubois Carpenter and had only 750 seats.
The Poughkeepsie Theatre Co. invested over $100,000 into their project. In 1917, they purchased land on Cannon Street and hired a well-known theater architect from New York City, William H. McElfatrick, to design the building. The interior design, which consisted of Roman gold trim and antique ivory, was done by Leo Sielke, who later became famous for his illustrations of silent movie stars for cinema magazines.
The theater opened in January of 1918 to great fanfare, despite a major coal shortage due to World War I. All 1,500 seats were filled. Several pictures were shown, along with music played by the famous F.L. Scofield’s Regimental Band. By 1922, the Poughkeepsie Theatre Co. had added the Liberty Theater as well as the Collingwood Opera House (later renamed the Bardavon) to their collection.
In 1925, Publix Theaters, a branch of Paramount Pictures, took over the operations of all three theaters. Around that time, the live band was replaced by an organ to accompany the films. In 1928, the newspapers printed an advertisement with the exciting news that sound recording, known as the vitaphone, an analog sound-on-disc system, had finally come to the Stratford. This method was quite primitive and not always reliable, as it could skip and become unsynced from the film. By the 1930’s, the sound quality had improved and films were getting bigger and better. However, most of the top billed films were going to the Bardavon. The Stratford and the Liberty theaters would both continue to operate until the late 1950’s before eventually closing for good.
The area where both of these theaters once stood is now a parking lot on Cannon Street.
Poughkeepsie Eagle News – 14 Aug 1914, 6 Nov 1917, 21 Jan 1918, 22 Jan 1918, 8 Jan 1923, 11 Feb 1922
Poughkeepsie Journal – 18 May 1958
741-1PC5 – Postcard of the Stratford Theatre when it was brand new. Circa 1918. LH Collection.
Stratfordtheatre-interior – Drawing of the interior designs at the Stratford.
Stratfordtheatre1 – Photo from the Poughkeepsie Journal showing the theater in decline. 1958.
1918Openingnight – Advertisement in the Poughkeepsie Journal for Jan 21, 1918, opening night.