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News and Notes

The History of The Sampson Theatre

Through multiple renovations and uses, The Sampson will once again raise its curtains in downtown Penn Yan.



Three years after The Sheppard (later known as The Lyceum), one of Penn Yan’s two Opera Houses at the time, was destroyed by a devastating fire in March of 1907, Dr. Frank Sampson drew up plans for a brand new theatre in downtown Penn Yan.


Dr. Sampson was a graduate of the Hahneman Medical College in Philadelphia, PA and after moving to Penn Yan held local offices such as president and trustee of the Penn Yan Village Board.



It was said that Dr. Sampson’s vision was to create a theatre that would stand for generations to come, a building that would be practically fireproof was the major concern in the early 1900s. His plan consisted of crafting a building constructed completely of reinforced poured concrete, the first of its type in the Finger Lakes area.


The Sampson Theatre, named after Dr. Sampson himself, is 60x100 feet, three stories, about 70 feet high in the rear, and 55 feet above street level. Accounts from workers that spent countless hours building The Sampson have said that eight carloads of cement were used to create the massive structure.


Following the completion of The Sampson Theatre, seating capacity was just over 900; 365 seats on the ground floor, 210 in the balcony, and 300 in the upper balcony, or gallery. There were also eight dressing rooms built below the stage level entirely of cement that still stand today.


For a brief period between 1910 and 1930, The Sampson Theatre was full of life and entertainment. Major shows played at The Sampson during its tenure as a theatre in the early part of the 20th century. In addition, silent movies were shown, historic films, comedy shows, variety shows, and even locally produced shows put on by students from Penn Yan Academy.



During its time as a theatre, The Sampson saw several owners and lessees - each having their own vision for what they wanted the historic theatre to be. Renovations were made throughout the years, but one thing never wavered, the reinforced poured concrete building itself.


At one point during its early run, The Sampson Theatre was confined to showing moving pictures exclusively. This move minimized the number of live performances shown, and ultimately in 1927, live stage productions were halted completely.

The slowing silent film industry at the end of the 1920s brought with it a decline in interest in shows and movies altogether. Due to this decline, The Sampson Theatre was eventually converted into an indoor miniature golf course - a move that would prove to be devastating for the theatre years to come.


In 1936, the theatre saw major alterations as it was converted into a garage and agency for Dodge and Plymouth automobiles. In 1953, ownership was passed to Penn Yan Motors, a Buick and Chevrolet dealership at the time.



Richard Trombley, of Trombley’s Tire Service, eventually purchased the building in 1967, using the building as a storage area for his business across the street for more than three decades.


Ultimately in 2004, The Trombley family gifted The Sampson to PYTCo with the purpose to return the building to its original use as an entertainment center. Today, PYTCo has worked tirelessly to bring The Sampson Theatre back to its original glory. The local organization, formed in 1978, has made great strides toward the complete revitalization of The Sampson.


Currently, PYTCo has been able to restore the main stage of The Sampson, replace all windows, restore the original front doors, replace the building’s ceiling tiles with original tin replicas, and much more. Be sure to learn more about PYTCo's accomplishments and vision at The Sampson at https://www.pytco.org/post/pytco-and-the-sampson-theatre.


Not only has PYTCo physically reformed The Sampson, but the local nonprofit has been able to get the building listed in the State and National Registers of Historic Places as well as selected to the Landmark Society’s Inaugural ‘Five to Revive’ List as a priority for preservation.


If you’re interested in learning more about PYTCo’s current plans to revitalize The Sampson into a working theatre as well as a multi-use building for the community, be sure to visit www.pytco.org. On their website, you can view what the Sampson looks like today and their future plans for the historic theatre.


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