Peoples' Theatre

168-170 Water Street,
Binghamton, NY 13901

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People's Theatre Binghamton, N.Y.

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In 1913, A.W. Newman operated a jewellery store on Chenango Street. That summer there were four theatres featuring vaudeville and motion picture entertainment in Binghamton, and Newman saw a need for a new, more intimate venue. He decided to close his shop and have the theatre built – a place where people could gather for evenings of fun and entertainment. It would be called the People’s Theatre.

Albert Willey was contracted to build a five story building to house Newman’s 400 seat theatre. Technically, it would be known as the Willey Block, but this was definitely the people’s building. The theatre was located on the ground floor and the upper floors were used by a lighting manufacturer. Built of reinforced concrete it was promoted as an ‘absolutely fireproof photoplay house’ and ‘on of the most modern structures of its character in the country’. Ground was broken on September 13, 1913, and the People’s Theatre opened to a packed house on July 6, 1914.

The People’s Theatre closed Saturday, September 27, 1930, with owner Jesse C. Hilman announcing plans in the press to replace the theatre with a miniature golf course (!). The press reported that ‘the front and the rear of the present theatre will be removed as well as the seats, furniture and fixtures used for movie purposes’. The ambitious undertaking was scheduled to be completed by October 15.

Perhaps not surprisingly, by 1933 the theatre had found new life as a night club called “Peoples”. This also appears to have a been a short-lived venture.

The impressive building still stands in good condition and is still in use. The ornate trim on the first two stories is a subtle reminder of its gaudier days as a movie theatre.

Contributed by Adam Marsland, La La Canniff

Recent comments (view all 3 comments)

adamghost
adamghost on August 26, 2013 at 12:14 am

An ad for Peoples' Theatre in June 1930, three months prior to shuttering, proclaims itself to be “100% Silent,” which gives a strong indication as to the reason for its closure.

bakes837
bakes837 on December 3, 2013 at 6:28 pm

The building was later occupied by Audio Service Co., a stereo system retailer, and is currently the site of Water Street Brewing Co., a (very good) brewpub.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on April 14, 2014 at 7:53 pm

All the period sources I’ve found say that Albert Willey was a real estate promoter and developer, and later a contractor, but not an architect. This brief biography published around 1918 is typical:

“Willey, Albert L.

Born in Freeville, Tompkins County, NY, Jan. 18, 1855, son of Samuel B. and Esther (Greenfield) Willey. He was educated in the public schools and academy of the town and opened a saw and grist mill. He did a thriving business and when the oportunity rose to dispose of the business he did so to his advantage. He purchased a farm in Cuba Lake, NY and later carried on the business of a meat market in Cortland, NY. He later returned to Freeville and became proprietor of a general store. In 1895 he came to Broome County and went into the real estate business with offices in Johnson City. He purchased two valuable tracts of land known as the Allen property and the Cook property and plotted them out into residential lots. He continued along this line, doing contracting along with his real estate business. He married in 1875, Helen E. Head of Lansing, Tompkins County, NY. They had children, Clarence A. Horace M. and Frederick R.“

It’s possible that the Willey Block was designed in-house by Willey’s firm, but I’ve been unable to discover the name of the actual architect. The decorative trim on the two lower floors looks as though it might have been ordered out of a catalog, though.

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