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A LOOK BACK: Lyceums Series Provided Wintertime Entertainment

childs-opera-house

The Childs Opera House prior to 1902.  The building was originally built as the Universalist Church in 1847.  The Church disbanded in the late 1870s and was sold to Morris Hall and Fred Childs.  The Hall’s Opera House had burnt in the Great Fire of 1879.    This gentleman converted the church into an opera house by adding a balcony and the multi-level porch on the front of the building.    This building also burnt.  In 1902, during a production that included a monkey, the monkey knocked over a lamp and an all consuming fire ensued.    Child’s Opera House was home to the start of the Lyceum Series. The other opera houses in Springville included Hall’s Opera House and then Godard (Goddard) Hall that was built in 1902.   

By Derek M. Otto

The winter months in and around Springville could be boring, if not desolate, if there was not an entertainment outlet.   In the early 1800s, there were no TVs, Internet, iPads or even radios.  Yes, there were churches, fraternal societies, and social clubs in the area that provided social and a variety of music shows, but performers and lecturers did not come from different parts of the country or provide insight and outlook on a variety of topics.   The entertainment and intellectual growth was only provided by the newspaper, if it existed, or library if your town had one.  Springville did not have a library until the late 1870s, or reliable newspaper until 1867.  For many years, news and development came through traveling salesmen or newcomers to the village.  Another way to fill this void, a unique institution was developed—the Lyceum course.

According to the Funk and Wagnall’s Encyclopedia, Josiah Holbrook began the first American Lyceum course in Millbury, MA in 1826.  (The name Lyceum is derived from the school near Athens, Greece where Aristotle lectured.)  The idea was to provide a venue for lectures and debates.  It was the first prototype for an adult education system in the United States. Lyceums took place in the winter. Later, as more leisure time developed in the summer months, the Chautauquas developed.    Before the American Civil War, the lecture courses provided by Lyceums were lecture and debate filled.  After the Civil War, the lecture courses grew to include dramatic and musical performances.

There were lecture courses in Springville on and off during the late 1870s and 1880s.   We know that the G. A. R. gave nearly $25 to help secure a lecture course in the early 1890s.  The 1905 catalog had mentioned that the cost of bringing the course had gone from $75 eight years ago to $1,100 in 1905.

The best known annual Lyceum course was established in 1902 and organized by Ira Smith and William Bensley.  The course lasted 25 years and according to the Springville Souvenir of 1939, “provided an outlet for national and international figures that were always anxious and appreciative for the opportunity to appear before the citizens of Springville.”

Some of the notables listed over that 25 years period included: Gen. John B. Gordon, C.S.A., one of General Lee’s most trusted generals;   Sen. J. P. Dolliver, Republican from Iowa nominated to be Theodore Roosevelt’s Vice-President but never chosen; Rev. Russell H. Conwell, founder of Temple University appeared here 12 times; resident of Chicago Donald B. McMillan, Arctic Explorer; Hon. Caleb Powers, a former Kentucky Secretary of State and Congressman,  who was twice sentenced to death for the assassination of Gov. Goebels of Kentucky.   Goebels was an opponent to Powers political boss and Powers was deemed to be the mastermind of the assassination.  Later Powers would serve as a Congressman.

The list of notables goes on; however, it is important to note that Gov. William Sulzer of New York came here to speak.  How often does Springville see a Governor from NYS?

The most notable of the time and still heard of today was Hon. William Jennings Bryan.  Bryan ran three times as the Democrat candidate, lost twice against President William McKinley.  Bryan served as United States Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson.   Remembered at time for his “Cross of Gold” speech in the Presidential campaigns and as Secretary of State when he spoke in Springville in 1922, Bryan found more notoriety as the prosecutor of the Scopes” Monkey” Trial in 1925.  The Springville Lyceum truly brought big names from the newspapers to Springville.

The Lyceums would start in the November and continue through to April, providing multiple opportunities in the months of December and January.   In addition to a variety of notables, music and drama were provided by artists from all across the country.  For instance, on Dec. 29, 1905, ticket holders could come hear the Brockway Jubilant Singers.  The description in the catalog lists their program as the “’The old melodies are best’ and in this number we will hear them sung by the best colored artists of the South.”

On Nov. 29, 1923, one could hear the Ladies Rainbow Saxophone Band and Orchestra, under the direction of Mrs. Sue Hewling.  The group was named after the Rainbow Division a war time (World War I) entertainment group.   This would be similar to the USO band or Marine Corps Band coming to Springville today.

The Lyceums were not free.  In 1905, patrons could buy season tickets for $1.50 and in 1923, the cost for a single performance was 75 cents.  The 1923 season ticket cost $2 plus 20 cents tax.   

Smith and Bensley really had to raise the funds for the course ahead of time to secure the acts.  To do so, they would hold contests to see which children in the village could sell the most.  As advertised in the 1905 catalog: “The boys and girls will meet at Wm. Bensley’s office on Saturday October 6 at 9 a.m.  Ten dollars in prizes, besides season tickets, will be given for selling. Three dollars to the one selling the most and the balance divided in proportion to the number sold.   Besides cash prizes, season ticket will also be given for every twenty tickets sold.”  The contest continued every year until the close of the Lyceum courses in Springville in 1927.   

The advent of newsreels, radio, and movies would eventually lead to the demise o f the Lyceum course in Springville.   The longevity and popularity of Springville Lyceums would lead to the New York Telephone designating LY2 (592) as the local phone exchange.

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