The Sampson Theatre is a highly visible anchor in the Penn Yan village commercial district located at 126 East Elm Street. It is an architecturally and historical significant theatre, a rare surviving example of a vaudeville house. It was built in 1910 by a local benefactor, Dr. Frank Sampson.
For 20 years the Sampson was the center of entertainment and live stage productions in Penn Yan. But with the advent of the depression and coming of motion pictures its use as a theater ended. Since 1930 the building was used for other purposes and the interior was altered. The most recent use was as a tire store run by the Trombley family. The Trombley family gifted the Sampson to PYTCo in 2004 with the purpose to return the building to its original use as an entertainment center.
President Theodore Roosevelt, spoke at the Sampson’s opening night, Oct. 12, 1910. Men in full evening dress and white kid gloves and ladies wearing evening gowns were much in evidence at the Sampson’s Grand Opening, for the performance of Louis Mann’s “laughable play,” “The Cheater”. The first performance at the Sampson drew $3 per ticket price for the reserved seats. Seats in the balcony or Gallery for the silent pictures were between 25 and 50 cents.
If the walls could talk, they would tell of the days when one of the finest opera theaters in this part of the state existed right here under its roof, and was the chief center of entertainment locally for nearly two decades spanning from its opening on Oct. 12, 1910, to 1930. Many major shows played at the Sampson during its tenure as a theater in the early part of the 20th century, including several adaptations of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” George M. Cohan’s “Broadway Jones,” Gounod’s “Faust,” and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas such as “H.M.S. Pinafore,”.
In addition, silent movies were shown, some historic films such as D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of A Nation,” Tom Mix westerns, and serials like “The Perils of Pauline,” which kept customers returning to capture the next ever-continuing adventures of the film’s heroine.
Sampson’s illustrious history also included the presentation of minstrel shows, musical companies, burlesque shows, variety shows that included song and dance, comedy and other various forms of clean-cut entertainment. Vaudeville, in its heydey at the time, brought “some great young comedians” to Penn Yan, including Joe Yule, who was the father of Mickey Rooney. There were also locally produced shows put on by students at Penn Yan Academy.
The building was constructed of reinforced poured concrete and was the first of its type in the area. The 60 by 100 foot structure was three stories high, and measured 70 feet high at the rear (above the stage) and 55 feet in height above the level of East Elm Street at its main entrance. The main floor contained about 500 seats, while there were about 250 balcony seats and 250 more in the Gallery, the uppermost part of the theater.
A project of this magnitude takes time, a lot of money and hundreds of hours of hard work by many of devoted volunteers. The results could be very beneficial to Penn Yan and the people of the area. President Theodore Roosevelt opened the Sampson in 1910. Think of the possibilities of the Sampson Theater's second coming. This dream is what drives the volunteers and makes this project so exciting.
The Sampson is listed in the State and National Registers of Historic Places. It is an important example of the early use of poured concrete construction which was unusual in a small town setting. This concrete has allowed the main frame of the building to survive in relatively good condition.
The Sampson Theatre was selected as one of the Landmark Society’s Inaugural “Five to Revive” as a priority for preservation.
Sources: The Chronicle-Express PENN YAN, 7-13 2005; Brian Cerow, The Chronicle-Express PENN YAN, 1984
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