Embassy Theatre

123 Main Street East,
Rochester, NY 14604

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A theatre had existed on this South Avenue site since the 1860’s. The first theatre built on this spot was destroyed by fire in the 1890’s and replaced with a new theatre by the name of Cook’s Opera House. Under this name it hosted such stars as Buffalo Bill and Sarah Bernhardt.

The interior was a fairly elaborate late-Victorian opera house with two horseshoe shaped balconies. The five story facade was topped with a frieze spelling out the theatre’s name, underneath which was a row of terra cotta busts depicting characters from the opera “Faust”.

In the 1920’s Cook’s Opera House began operating as the Family Theatre, and was the last holdout in Rochester to show silent movies when talkies were sweeping all before them. Later the theatre became the Embassy, which was mainly known for its burlesque shows.

The theatre was closed in the 1950’s and remained a well preserved, but shuttered, building until the 1980’s, when city began eyeing the site for a new convention center. While the convention center was being opposed by local citizens interested in restoring Cook’s Opera House and reopening, it a fire of “mysterious origin” swept through the structure and destroyed it, causing Rochester to lose it’s final 19th century theatre, remaining in near original condition.

Contributed by Carl Laitenberger

Recent comments (view all 9 comments)

charlesc
charlesc on December 16, 2007 at 12:00 am

The Embassy theatre did not survive until the 1980’s as mentioned above. The fire that destroyed the Embassy occured in I believe, 1973. The theatre was to have been renovated and incorporated into a city plan to develop the downtown area of the Genesee river,which ran behind the theatre. The Rochester Riverside Convention Center now sits on the site.

kencmcintyre
kencmcintyre on August 23, 2008 at 11:53 am

The Embassy can be seen on the right in this 1947 photo from the Rochester Public Library:
http://tinyurl.com/6arc3k

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on August 23, 2008 at 12:12 pm

As the “Cook Opera House”, this theater is listed under Rochester in the 1897-98 edition of the Julius Cahn Official Theatrical Guide. George Geiling was the Mgr and the seating capacity was 1,500. The theater had both gas and electric illumination. The proscenium opening was 33 feet wide X 26 feet high, and the stage was 51 feet deep. The theater was on the ground floor and there were 7 in the house orchestra. It’s also described as “Cook’s Opera House”. The other Rochester theater listed in this Guide is the Lyceum, wiith 1,698 seats. The 1897 population of Rochester was 160,000.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on November 23, 2010 at 8:04 am

The architectural firm of Leon H. Lempert & Son designed the Cook Opera House. The firm was located in Rochester, and designed numerous theaters there. The other Rochester theaters they had designed, as listed in an ad for the firm in the 1905 editionof Julius Cahn’s Official Theatrical Guide, were the National, the Baker, the Lyceum, the Empire, and the Corinthian.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on November 24, 2010 at 8:46 am

Donovan A. Shilling’s book “Rochester: Labor and Leisure” (Google Books preview) says that the Cook Opera House became the Family Theatre in 1913.

Carl
Carl on May 25, 2012 at 10:27 am

I guess it’s a little ridiculous to respond to a comment from 5 years ago, but charlesc is mistaken. The were not any actual plans in place to restore the theatre, just a group of citizens who were hoping to do so in spite of the city wanting to destroy the theatre. I remember in the same block was the Commerce Building, which was a lovely Beaux Arts skyscraper, and the old Security Trust Bank. Local citizens kicked up a fuss to save all the buildings, but with the fire at Cook’s Opera house the efforts to save them came to nothing. I was working at Lawyer’s Co-op at the time, and had been out of school for a few years, so the earliest the fire could have occured would have been 1979.

It seems suspicious that a theatre could sit vacant and untouched for decades, and then when the gov’t wants the site, it suddenly burns down.

Instead of something unique and local, Rochester now has the same ininspired type convention center so common to many cities. It just seems odd that with all the vacant land downtown, it couldn’t have gone somewhere else.

What with the loss of Sibley’s, the theatres on Clinton Avenue, Midtown Plaza, and dozens of other things, I don’t even go downtown when I go home to visit. Just the thought is too sickening.

TivFan
TivFan on July 30, 2013 at 2:53 am

Has anybody heard of the Colonial Theatre, at 197 Main St. East? I have a photograph of members of the Motion Picture Exhibitors League of America—New York State Ass'n No. 11. The photo may date to the late 1920’s. Attached to the photo is a paper which identifies the members and it appears the paper is a piece of writing paper with the Leagues' letterhead. It seems the League was based at the Colonial Theatre in Rochester.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on July 30, 2013 at 12:56 pm

TivFan: Your photo could date from as early as 1913, when the October 4 issue of Moving Picture World reported that the New York Motion Picture Exhibitors' League would meet in Rochester on October 15 and 16. A.N. Wolf of the Colonial Theatre was the local contact for details. The item does not give the address of the theater, though.

Mr. Wolf might have been connected with the League for many years, though, and could have been the local contact for many later conventions. There’s a brief article about the Colonial Theatre, with a photo of Mr. Wolf and a photo of the entrance to the theater itself on this page of the October 18, 1913, issue of the same publication. If Mr. Wolf is also in your photo, maybe you’ll recognize him.

Roger Katz
Roger Katz on March 4, 2014 at 8:45 pm

TivFan: The Colonial was previously known as the Fairyland and subsequently as the Rialto, the name under which it is listed here on CT.

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