Mary Davenport played piano for silent films
50-year employee recalls theatre's colorful past
by Betty Jane Wright
With the final darkening this weekend of the Oakland Theatre - a victim of obsolescence, changing viewer habits and the inability of the small main street theatre to compete with the lure and the top film command of the shopping center chains - an era of home town entertainment came to an end. It was a long and colorful one and perhaps no one knew it more intimately than Mrs. Leo Davenport who has been associated with the Oakland for nearly 56 years.
Mary Davenport's first introduction to the fascinating world of "the movies" was as a girl of 16 when she was hired to play piano accompaniment to the silent films of that time. A pupil of Warwick's High Street school, she at first substituted for school teacher Florence Baker, then succeeded Miss Baker full time. This involved walking to the village from the McMunn family home on what is now the Raynor farm sometimes twice a day, and the cooperation of School Principal Cliford L. Haight who allowed her to leave school a few minutes early to get to the mid-week matinees.
"A new picture was shown everyday," Mary reminisced for the DISPATCH this week. Seated at the piano in the orchester pit, she would play marches for the war films, melancholy music for the sad scenes, "hurries" for the horse races. The accompanist was free to use her own imagination except for bit pictures when a cue card was furnished. "Sometimes Tom, Jeff and Clint Wisner and Theron Smith joined me and we had an orchestra," she recalled.
In those days the Oakland had three matinees a week - Wednesday, Thursday and Saturdays, but no shows at all on Sunday. Sunday shows were finally submitted to a public vote and approved, and Mary recalls that one of the most outspoken opponents of Sunday movies was the first one in line at the first Sunday show.
The theatre was in 1914 by Harry Smith and opening night was an invitation affair. Mary clearly remember town dignitaries arriving in evening dresses and capes. The following night the theatre was open to the public. "It was 25cents for mom, 10 cents for me."
Mr. Smith operated the theatre for three years at which time it was purchased by Thomas Wisner, his brother, Clinton Wisner and Burt Berry, father of Mrs. Tusten Van Duzer. Thomas Wisner eventually become the sole owner.
At the deathe of Thomas Wisner, ownership of the busiiness passed to his wife, Mrs. Henrietta Wisner, and then to his brother , Clinton W. Wisner, Charles Finger, who had worked for the theatre since the age of 12 and became its projectionist, first rented, then purchased the business which he operated for 14 years, with Mary as cashier.
On one memorable evening when Tom Wisner was the owner and Harry Welch was the projectionist, fire broke out in the projection booth. The sprinkler went into action and everyone got out safely but the theatre was heavily damaged. It was closed down and reopened with new carpet and new lined drapes hand made by Henrietta Wisner. A new brick front housing the sprinkler pump house and an office was added, along with a marquee, its many light bulbs adding a bit of Broadway to Warwick's Main Street. The DISPATCH at that time congratulated the management on this modern and beautiful theatre and the quality of its sound.
We asked what fillm stars Mary remembered most from her days in the orchestra pit. Westerns were the pop favorites as they are today: William S. Hart, Tom Mix, Buck Jones. And there were wondrous moments with Mary Pickford, Marquerite Clark, Pauline Frederick, Kathleen Williams. Two-reel comedies starring Fatty Arbuckle and Charles Chaplin shown in addition to the regular feature woud sell out the house on Saturday nights.
Harold Corbett brought a chance of pace with his vaudeville shows. At one time, vaudeville acts were staged as a special feature on Friday nights.
On other occasions, the Oakland's stage scintillated wtih DeRue Bros. and Van Arman's Minstrel Shows. The cast and props arrived by train, the special cars sitting on Elm Street siding of the L & H. The show was heralded by a big noontime parade of costumed performers and a full-piece band, "In March or April we could always look forward to a minstrel show."
It is the hope of this writer that some kind of rivival of the Oakland Theatre may take place. But should it vanish from the scene, many of us will long remember the enchanted hours it brought us, and the people like Mary and the Wisner brothers and Charles Finger who worked to bring the community a theatre of which it whould be proud.
This is a transcription of an article from the Warwick Valley Dispatch, dated October 4,1972.
Many of the transcriptions found here are now in published form. They have been published by the Orange County Genealogical Society (in Goshen, New York). Volume 3 includes my Volume 3 and Volume 5. Volume 4 includes my four parts of New Milford history. There is a planned Volume 5, which will include my Volumes 6, 7, and 8, Part 1, which is about 250 transcriptions. They can be purchase through the Genealogical Society. Just Google them and print out the order form. Or they can be purchased from the Warwick Historical Society. They are also on sale at the gift shop at Baird's Tavern. I would like to thank the Genealogical Society and Dan Burrows for their efforts. Started a new blog for images of Warwick. Go to: www.imagesofwarwicknewyork.blogspot.com.