Bardavon, Poughkeepsie’s cultural oasis

Story and photographs by Bob Rozycki

Sitting in a modern multiplex is like sitting in a sterile cube. Well, sterile except for the floors and armrests made sticky by spilled sodas or smooshed candies.

Sitting in the Bardavon theater in Poughkeepsie is 180 degrees – and innumerable generations – away.

If you find yourself lucky enough to sit in the last row of the balcony of the theater, you can feel the history of the opera house speak to you. You’re doubly lucky if you’re the only person in the whole house, as I was recently.

Sink into the seat, breathe in and let the theater envelop you in its womb-like atmosphere of red velvet curtains and soft lights. Cast your eyes about this visual panorama; it’s all in the details.

Golden stars are splashed about the dome of the ceiling, itself encircled in a band of gold with medallions inscribed.

On a side wall, a scary plaster head looks down, its mouth diabolical and its protruding tongue lascivious. Its twin lurks on the opposite wall.

In an arch, two griffins stand guard before a capped urn containing whose spirit?

On this day the stage lies hidden behind immense velvet curtains. It has served as the theater’s soul since 1869 bringing laughter, tears and wonderment to untold thousands of patrons.

Who has graced the floorboards? Who hasn’t, is the answer.

An amalgam of theatrical greats – Sarah Bernhardt and the Barrymores – to curiosities such as General Tom Thumb and philosophizing gentlemen Mark Twain and Will Rogers all graced the early stage.

The stage was shared when silent movies arrived. Close your eyes once more and imagine in the late 1930s being taken to your seat by an usher named Ed Wood. Yes, that Ed Wood, the cross-dresser who would go on to be a writer of inestimable pulp fiction, a screenwriter, and a film director and producer who would have the dubious distinction of being the Worst Director of All Time.

The Bardavon remembered Ed Wood this past Oct. 11 with a showing of his “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” the movie in which Bela Lugosi suffered a fatal heart attack and was replaced by Woods’ wife’s chiropractor who filled in for Lugosi by covering his face with a black cape. In homage, dozens of fans attended the showing dressed in top hats and black capes.

Rumor has it the theater has a ghost or two. Sitting in the balcony that day I did hear footsteps behind me, but I did not see any spirits.

Who knows, maybe it was Mr. Wood looking for a good seat.

For more information on the Bardavon 1869 Opera House, visit bardavon.org.

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