Hamilton Theater: Here’s Looking At You, Kid
As the iconic Hamilton Movie Theater underwent its fifth major renovation last summer, two film students — Chloe You ’22 and Molly Adelman ’21 — constructed a thorough history of how it’s changed over the years. These are the highlights:
- Tripp’s Opera House was the original entertainment center in Hamilton, hosting not only musical performances but also banquets, masquerades, and local ceremonies. On Feb. 19, 1895, a massive fire that destroyed most of the downtown businesses burned the opera house to ashes.
- E.B. Sheldon, who had been running his grocery store from one of the opera house’s upper floors, bought the empty lot and began building anew. The three-story building would house an opera house, Sheldon’s “extensive grocery business,” and offices. Sheldon Opera House opened on Sept. 24, 1895, with a speech from Colgate President George W. Smith. The “all-modern improvements” included electricity, 1,000 folding seats, six scenic backdrops, and heated dressing rooms under the stage. In addition to vaudeville and other shows, the opera house began offering feature-length films — the first of which was the 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation.
- After Sheldon died in 1923, the Smalley circuit — one of the largest U.S. theater chains at the time — purchased the building. When admission prices increased from 25 cents to 35 cents in 1932, students protested until William Smalley threatened to shut the theater down.
- In 1934, an even larger theater chain, the Schine Circuit, purchased the theater.Renovations to the new Schine’s State Theater touted a redesigned balcony and a smaller stage, which fully transformed the space from a live-performance venue to one designed specifically for film screenings. It showed popular films (a feat for a small town) like Charleton Heston’s Ben Hur.
- The year 1966 introduced new owner Panther Theater, which was notorious for showing children’s films in daytime and X-rated films at night. Business began to suffer.
- In an effort to revitalize the theater, Mayor Robert Kuiper bought it in 1973. The new Hamilton Cinema boasted a renovated lobby and a new sign — which was necessary because the old marquee was damaged from students sitting and climbing on it.
- Alumnus Jay Metz ’59 entered the picture in 1989 and owned the theater until 2003. From 1996–99, the theater closed for renovations. It reopened as a triplex called the Hamilton Movie House.
- Colgate University purchased the theater in 2003 through the Hamilton Initiative. Under the management of Chuck Fox ’70, it was renamed the Hamilton Movie Theater. The simple wooden marquee that had been used since the 1970s was replaced by a lighted, more elaborate version that was given by the Class of 1956. Their stipulation: It needed to be modeled after Schine’s State Theater, where they spent time as undergraduates.
- Last summer, the theater’s newest makeover included lobby renovations, reclining chairs, upgrades to the projection and sound equipment, a modern concession stand, and improved accessibility. A soft opening on Oct. 10 featured the 1985 flick Back to the Future. The next night, the community gathered out front to watch the ribbon cutting and celebrate the grand opening.