Earlville Opera House brings arts and culture to Chenango County for past 50 years

The Earlville Opera House brings about 15 performers to Chenango County every year
Published: Nov. 20, 2023 at 8:14 PM EST
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EARLVILLE, NY (WBNG) -- The tale of the Earlville Opera House is one of perseverance. It’s about how a group of volunteers came together to save an abandoned building from the wrecking ball.

In 1887, the opera house was housed in an old Baptist church. That structure eventually burned down. A second structure was built, but half of that building also burned down after a couple of years.

The third reconstructed opera house was beloved in the community and this one felt indestructible according to people familiar with the building. However, the building closed its doors in the 1950s due to the evolution of technology, such as drive-in movie theaters.

Then in 1971, the opera house was doomed to be demolished. With this threat looming on the horizon, it was as if the opera house would disappear from Earlville for good. Until a young artist and social activist named Joey Skaggs decided this wasn’t going to happen.

“If I hadn’t come along and decided to save it, it wouldn’t be there. It would be a parking lot,” said Skaggs.

Skaggs is originally from New York City but traded the hustle and bustle for the quiet of upstate. After moving to a town in Chenango County, Skaggs heard about the opera house and decided to check it out. After hearing that it was going to be torn down, Skaggs decided to put a stop to the wrecking ball.

Skaggs purchased the opera house and decided to go on a massive marketing campaign to bring life back into the building.

“I went to Binghamton, Syracuse and all around New York, New York City advertising that I had an opera house to give away for free,” said Skaggs. “I was besieged by people who wanted a free opera house, but my plan was that I wanted it to be a part of the community.”

Skaggs said he wanted the opera house to serve as the hub of entertainment and arts in Earlville.

He found a young group of volunteers who supported his vision. The volunteers came from the community and Colgate University. They started working on restoring the opera house almost immediately.

“The early volunteers tore off about 30 feet of the back half of the building and built a new back wall,” said Earlville Opera House Board President Bruce Ward. “They also redid new drywall in the backstage area, painted that all black and made it ready for theatrical productions.”

In 1976, the lights on the stage of the opera house’s historic main theater turned on again: It hosted its first live performance with proceeds from the show going toward more renovation efforts.

Since 2003 until now, the opera house has brought about 15 performers to the area each year. The performers get to enjoy some of the unique aspects of the opera house starting with the main stage.

“For starters, you might have noticed it’s not very big,” said Earlville Opera House Technical Director Steve Blais. “So, if we have an eight-piece band, they’re kind of packed in there.”

However, opera house members said that this also poses some challenges for staging musicals.

“We have also done a musical, which was ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,’” said Board Member for Sherburne Music-Theater Society Rick Thormahlen. “Putting ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ on a 19 by 19-foot stage was quite an accomplishment for the director.”

The theater room is also special. Blais said it allows artists to have natural reverb.

“The room itself carries the sound very well,” said Blais. “If you’re playing on that stage, the room talks back to you. You can feel it.”

Singer and songwriter Reyna Stagnaro has performed on the opera house stage numerous times. She described the experience as a fairy tale.

“The first word that always comes to mind when I think about the opera house is ‘magic,’” said Stagnaro. “There’s so much history here. You feel the stardust on the stage.”

Along with the different performances, the opera house also offers workshops to the public ranging in various topics related to the arts. There are also three galleries in the opera house where artists can showcase their work.

“The fact that you can walk in here, free of charge and see work done by local or regional, or even out of the region artists, I think it’s a beautiful thing to have in a rural area,” said Gallery Artist JW Johnston. “This is a gem.”

The opera house now celebrates 50 years since the volunteers restored it. For the people who work every day to maintain and preserve the opera house, it has become home.

“I’m extremely proud of what the community has done,” said Skaggs. “They carried on my vision of restoring it, maintaining it, making it open to artists of all forms to participate and exhibit. It’s a proud feeling that has been going on now for more than 50 years.”

If you’d like to learn more about workshops or upcoming performances, visit here.