The Woodstock Opera House
before the restoration.
The WFAA welcomes actress Betsy Palmer 1964
L to R Jim Hecht, Esther Wanieck, Betsy Palmer, Betty Babcock and Robert Schoeder
President Kurt Wanieck congratulates David Huffman, the first WFAA scholarship winner.
Members of the Women's Guild welcome actress Betsy Palmer to the Opera House.
L to R Patricia Tambone, Helen Wright, Betsy Palmer and Evelyn Rosulek 1964
The Woodstock Fine Arts Association began in the early 1960's, when many students and adults embraced the idea that the deteriorating Woodstock Opera House should be rescued.
Built in 1890, the Opera House was designed to house several city government offices, besides an auditorium for performances. Over the years many legendary actors have graced the stage. In 1934, Orson Welles, a young student at Woodstock's Todd School for Boys, starred in Shakespearean plays at the Opera House. During the late 40's and early 50's, Geraldine Page, Shelley Berman, Tom Bosley, Betsy Palmer, and Paul Newman appeared in many theater productions at the Opera House.
By 1960, the physical health of the Opera House began to fail. The Junior Civic Arts League, a group of high school and college students led by Esther Wanieck, was formed to battle the increasing deterioration of the auditorium and stage.
There were holes in the roof that allowed pigeons in the building. The dedicated volunteers cleared the chairs of pigeon droppings before the shows began. As the building was not completely safe, they hired firemen to standby while the performances were going on, paying them $6.00 a shift. With assistance from the city government, the League acquired like-new seats from a defunct Chicago theatre as a first step towards renovation.
Concerned the energy to save the Opera House was dwindling, the Woodstock Fine Arts Association was formed in 1961 to provide year-round programming, and organizational support. Many of the founders of the Junior Civic Arts League became the early leaders of the Woodstock Fine Arts Association.
That summer the WFAA produced two full length plays that garnered box office support. The programs continued for the next two years, running workshops that transformed the students into good actors, but also producers, directors and set directors. In 1964 they also recognized the talented students with their first scholarship given to a student excelling in the arts.
The goal of the organization was to support the Opera House and produce quality programming. The mission statement on the Articles of Incorporation was 'to promote cultural and educational activities for the enjoyment of all ages.' Many of the early members were men, including John McConnell and Kurt Wanieck. Jim Hecht was the first president.
In 1964, the Women's Guild was formed to support and promote the work of the WFAA. Their first task was to plan a Diamond Jubilee Opera Gala, to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the Opera House. Pat Tambone and Barbara Kuby were the co-chairmen of this fabulous event. This celebration was the impetus that led to the restoration and preservation movement.
Following the Diamond Jubilee, the Women's Guild committed to the complete restoration of the Opera House. For the next seven years they continued to provide programming, leadership, fundraising and devotion to the Opera House. Puppet shows, a fine arts chorale, membership teas, orchestral programs - these women filled the Opera House with a variety of activities.
In 1964, Helen Wright, the President of the Guild, started a series of speakers and performers called the "Creative Living Series." The series included six programs a year, on Thursday mornings in the Opera House.
The Guild also raised money for scholarships for high school seniors who were gifted in the arts, and continually produced programming for children, from puppet shows to plays.
In 1972, under the guidance of President Marjorie Sharpe, the Women's Guild became the Woodstock Fine Arts Association. A grant from the Ford Foundation made it possible to bring in professional counsel on the direction for the future of the Opera House. Fundraising for the restoration began in earnest.
Many groups worked to save the Opera House, but none were more committed than the WFAA. Marjorie Sharpe led the push to get the Opera House listed on the National Historic Register. She made the contacts that brought architectural historians and preservationists to Woodstock to support the drive. Besides Helen Wright, Marjorie Sharpe and Esther Wanieck, some of the other members of the WFAA who were instrumental during the first fifteen years were Darlene Fiske, Betty Babcock, Betty Hale, Val Gitlin, Cav Peterson, Ruth Stout, Lillian Strohm and Barbara Kuby.
A letter from the George Izenour, Professor of Theater Design at Yale School of Drama to Marjorie Sharpe encouraged the WFAA to continue the preservation drive. Professor Izenour was one of the architectural historians that had visited Woodstock to evaluate the Opera House.
"Dear Mrs. Sharpe:
Let me congratulate you on your dogged persistence in saving what is probably the only extant example of steamboat Gothic Architecture left anywhere on dry land. I am only to glad to lend my voice to your efforts in making this Opera House a living artifact of theatrical Americana…"
The hope of the WFAA was that the Opera House be restored to its original colors and style, rather than the red and gilt many opera houses had embraced. The original stencils were uncovered and reproduced. Thanks to Robert Furhoff, an architectural historian, the true colors of the Opera House were restored. Today the building is an accurate example of 'steamboat architecture,' a beautifully restored treasure.