Eastman Theater

60 Gibbs Street,
Rochester, NY

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The Eastman opened in 1922 showing the silent version of “The Prisoner of Zenda”. It was presented to the city as a gift from George Eastman, who had founded the Eastman Kodak company. Carved over the entrance facade is the ‘For the enrichment of community life.’

George Eastman wanted to expose the public to classical music and thought that a movie theater with a well trained orchestra and organist would be a good way to do it. Though not as spectacular as some movie palaces, the Eastman has a lovely oval entrance lobby with a bronze box office, marble columns, wall hangings depicting the story of Psyche and Cupid, and well detailed plaster work.

Throughout the theater the various lobbies,staircases and lounges still contain most of the elegant furniture, antiques, and artwork (including an original mural by Maxfield Parish) that decorated them on opening night. Though not atmospheric, the original scheme for the auditorium was that of sitting in a huge elaborate pavilion open to the outdoors. The sidewalls are of plaster made to look like rusticated stonework and have large murals depicting processions of musicians parading by (still in place today). The main emergency exits are guarded by busts of Bach and Beethoven. During its days as a movie theater the stage setting for the screen was made to look like an Italian garden. A shallow dome illuminated by a huge chandelier dominates the entire space.

As a side note, the light fixtures to hang in the corners of the ceiling above the balcony had not arrived by opening day, so the workmen took a pair of washtubs, wired them for electricity, ornamented and gilded them, and hung them up to do temporary duty until the real thing arrived. 81 years later the temporary fixtures are still in place.

The Eastman was briefly leased to the Publix chain, but with the advent of talkies the theater’s original purpose of presenting good music to the public was not being served. The Eastman became a concert hall in 1930 and has been home to the Rochester Philharmonic ever since.

Contributed by Carl

Recent comments (view all 37 comments)

HenrySchmidt
HenrySchmidt on March 17, 2011 at 8:18 pm

Jeff, Eastman’s “plan to bring classical music to the people” did NOT “fail,” not even in “small part,” and I didn’t mean to suggest that it had. The Eastman Theatre and the Eastman School of Music stand as testimony to his generosity and foresight, which has continued down through the years thanks to Eastman Kodak. George Eastman generously endowed the School, which for almost 90 years has been producing countless performing musicians, teachers of music, and many other creative practitioners of the art of music. I am one of them, a graduate of the School, classical musician, and college professor of music for many, many years. But the Eastman Theatre, as a showcase for “photoplays” (movies), was not ultimately a success, due to technological and economic factors beyond George Eastman’s control. One might debate, for example, the business acumen, or lack thereof, in erecting a 3,000+seat movie house in a medium-sized city like Rochester! Where were the audiences supposed to come from, and keep coming from, to fill this outsized house to anywhere close to capacity? In fact, the recent renovations of the hall, now known as Kodak Hall, have reduced the number of seats by several hundred, as if to acknowledge that the original plan resulted in an overbuilt house. Consider also that the Theatre had local competition from Loew’s and Paramount, among others, for the movie business.

I did not mean to say or imply that all these were the direct, or indeed the only, reasons for his suicide, but I will maintain that they were contributing factors. Interestingly enough, Eastman’s suicide was one of the best kept secrets at the School. I walked the halls of Eastman for five years as a student, and had long since left Rochester for a career elsewhere, before I learned of it, and then only by reading it in Elizabeth Brayer’s 1996 biography. (The first edition of that work contained a number of editorial howlers, corrected, I hope, in the second, which I have not seen.) In the almost 80 years since Eastman’s death, his vision has been fulfilled many times over.

My sincere apologies for using the word “failure.” Probably “disappointment” would have been a better word choice on my part..

jefffreeland
jefffreeland on March 17, 2011 at 9:00 pm

Henry, I agree with almost all which you just wrote. But, maintain all you wish, without any evidence, your conjecture is speculation. That’s the only point I was making.

I’m life long Rochestarian, btw. I sang in the renovated theater a couple of weekends ago and the sound, while modestly improved, is still not ideal. (And, Eastman is turning in his grave over the additions of boxes, for the elite, to his theater.)

Gloriously, the new Hatch Recital Hall has world class acoustics and a beautifully matched new Steinway concert grand. It is a exquisitly handsome minimalist space, as well.

HenrySchmidt
HenrySchmidt on March 18, 2011 at 1:16 am

Jeff,

Well, evidence would be hard to come by at this late date:–) We’ll agree to disagree, but I don’t consider it to be an earth-shaking matter. BTW, Brayer indulges in a bit of speculation in ch. 30 (“My Work is Done”) of the Eastman biography, with documentation. I can’t attest to the thoroughness of her research due to of my ignorance of her sources, but since I’m no longer constrained by the rules of academe I’m willing to take her at her word.

Interesting to have your take, as a performer, on ET acoustics. That is the problem with a hall of that size and configuration. I played there a number of times in orchestra and wind ensemble, and sitting on the stage it was difficult to hear the other performers because a lot of the sound went up into the fly loft (in those days there was no shell, such as there is today, or at best there was a rudimentary one), and a lot of sound was absorbed by the audience bodies and the empty seats ;o} But visually it was a most impressive space. When Mercury Records made their legendary “Living Presence” recordings, on special Ampex 35mm tape machines, in the ET in the 1950s and ‘60s, they took great care with the three-microphone placement, which is why those recordings come off so well even by (or maybe especially by) today’s standards. I understand that the Mercury recording engineers eschewed the kind of electronic gimmicks that have become so commonplace in today’s environment. I have a number of the original LPs as well as some CD reissues, and they sound terrific (esp. the LPs).

jefffreeland
jefffreeland on March 18, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Sorry, I didn’t mean to press my point quite so hard.

As an audience member my favorite place to sit was center about half way up the balcony. Even then (with the earlier fish scale detailed shell) whenever the piccolos or trumpets played I could distinctly hear them bounce off the high left wall behind me and into my left ear. I always found it funny that the high priced seats in the mezzanine had the worst sound of all. Although I love the almost domestic intimacy of the space.

HenrySchmidt
HenrySchmidt on March 18, 2011 at 1:36 pm

I have experienced the same acoustical richness in other theaters: the higher up, the better sound. Here in Allentown, the best seat in the house IMO for hearing the Symphony is the center seat in the last row of the balcony of Symphony Hall (formerly the Lyric Theater, a McElfatrick-designed house). Those balcony seats are located under an acoustical dome. The builders knew what they were doing back in the day. OTOH, any seat under an overhang, as in a mezzanine, is generally not good for sound, as you observe. Your comment about the box seating added to the ET at renovation reminds me that this vestige of European privilege generally did not survive here in the U.S. The oldest concert hall in the country, Philadelphia’s beautiful Academy of Music (1857), designed by Napoleon LeBrun, has only four boxes, two on each side of the stage. And those box seats provide the absolute worst view of the stage! “Go figure,” as they say.

Ziggy
Ziggy on April 9, 2011 at 3:33 am

Just a comment on some of the above posts. First of all, the new box seats don’t look nearly as dreadful as I feared they would, but I hope they don’t look worse when I finally get back to Rochester to see them in person. Second, if George Eastman’s suicide is a well kept secret at the Eastman School, I can only say that it must be that Eastman students don’t get out much. As a native Rochesterian, I can say that the manner in which George Eastman met his demise is well known by anyone in the city who keeps half an ear open.

HenrySchmidt
HenrySchmidt on April 9, 2011 at 6:21 pm

I was writing of my experience at ESM in the 1959-64 period. I don’t know what goes on there now. And let’s face it: there wasn’t much to “get out” to in Rochester in those years for a college student, unless it was the nearest bar (NY drinking age was 18 back then, for better or worse—-mostly worse). And trust me when I say that being a native is vastly different than being a transient from the big city (I came to the UR by way of NYC). The general public was not wandering around the streets saying “George Eastman committed suicide.” Most of us students knew George Eastman only as a portrait hanging on the wall of the second floor corridor; we were there to learn how to operate a musical instrument, not study the benefactor’s life story, so while we had our musical ears open it was not to listen to whatever historical bits happened to filter down to us . I’m not defending it, but that’s the way things were as I saw them. I’ve learned a few other things in the years since ;–)

Tinseltoes
Tinseltoes on February 4, 2013 at 6:06 pm

Shouldn’t this be listed under its current name as Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre?

HenrySchmidt
HenrySchmidt on February 5, 2013 at 12:41 am

No doubt it should, but in the (near?) future our descendants will wonder what “Kodak” was. 8-(

jefffreeland
jefffreeland on February 5, 2013 at 2:44 am

Far as I know, the building is still the Eastman Theater. Only the room is named Kodak Hall.

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