On Sept. 4, 1922, Eastman Theatre opened with one of the most celebrated public performances in the cultural history of Rochester, an event whose significance is still felt close to 90 years later.
At 1 p.m., the first of three performances started with a stirring performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture performed by the Eastman Theatre Orchestra, then alternated film and music, climaxing with Metro Pictures hit silent movie The Prisoner of Zenda.
Eastman Theatre itself was the star. Its splendor was trumpeted in the major news media of the day. With 3,352 seats, few theaters in the country rivaled Eastman in its magnificence. The theater included the largest theater organ in the nation at the time and the latest in electrical technology and mechanical engineering with the world’s largest marquee stretching 367 feet. Painter Maxfield Parrish provided his original masterpiece Interlude (now relocated to the University’s Memorial Art Gallery).
The most notable feature of the theater may well have been its striking chandelier. Fourteen feet in diameter, 35 feet tall, and weighing approximately 5,000 pounds, the chandelier has 585 visible and 670 concealed lights with 298 strings of glass containing 20,000 individual pieces of crystal looping from the circle to the top.
For George Eastman, who would provide more financial support for the Eastman Theatre and the Eastman School of Music than any other project at the University, the opening of the theater was a dream come true.
“I love to listen to music and in listening I’ve come to think of it as a necessary part of life. . . . There are no drawbacks to music,” Eastman recalled, “you can’t have too much of it.”
In a dazzling period in the early 1920s, Eastman “spent money like water,” to build the theater, stopping at the site almost every day to inspect the execution of the McKim, Mead and White architectural plans. He achieved what one artist described as “the most beautiful, the most dignified and most tasteful structure” for music in the nation. Within the theater’s initial years, Jan Paderewski, Toscanini, Isadora Duncan, Nellie Melba, Jascha Heifitz, Pablo Casals, and Fritz Kreisler, among many others, would perform in Rochester’s most distinguished venue. During the first month, eight different operas, beginning with Aida, were presented. In 1923 Eastman supported a ballet company and helped initiate the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1924, Eastman, working hand in glove with then President Rush Rhees, hired Howard Hanson as director of the Eastman School and created the finest school of music the nation had ever known.
Only twice was Eastman frustrated in this great project. He had originally envisioned the theater as a silent movie house that would generate sufficient revenue to support the school of music. This plan, which Rhees described as “nearly [giving] me apoplexy,” called for the presentation six days a week of the finest available films. Mounting losses caused the University to abandon the movie business and lease the theater to Paramount Pictures, which also could not make a go of it. In 1931 the theater was returned to the Eastman School for use as a concert hall.
Eastman’s frustration in purchasing a residential and commercial property directly adjacent to the theater took decades longer to address. Only in 1961 did the University acquire the property.
Beginning on Oct. 8, 2009, the University will fully complete George Eastman’s dream. On that day, Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre will officially open with a gala performance by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra featuring an original composition by Eastman Dean Douglas Lowry entitled Geo in honor of Eastman. The hall itself will again be the star, but dramatically renovated with 21st-century acoustics, new and improved seating, and new lobbies.
Approximately one year later, a new wing of the Eastman Theatre complex will open with the new Hatch Recital Hall to complement Kodak and Kilbourn Halls. Echoing the original giant chandelier will be a stunning new work by renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly in the new wing’s atrium.
When Eastman was originally asked to pose for a portrait for the theater, he responded tongue in cheek, “Would it not satisfy your portrait aspirations if I should be sculpted heroic size for one of the figures on the roof, with a camera in one hand and horn in the other?”
Eastman gave us much more than a portrait. He gave his name to the Eastman School and gave the City of Rochester the Eastman Theatre “for the enrichment of community life.” In revitalizing Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, we give fresh life to one of George Eastman’s grandest visions.