A guest blog by Samantha Hall-Saladino
Stacy Botsford grew up in Gloversville in the 19th century. In a November 16, 1939 letter published in the Morning Herald, Botsford wrote from his home in California, remembering his young days in Gloversville: “I stopped to watch the construction of the Kasson Opera House, there was Hick Kasson wearing his blue cape, and with the wrong end of his cigar protruding from his lips as usual. He did not smoke or chew, but he was never without his cigar.”
Alexander “Hick” Kasson was born in Broadalbin in 1829 and relocated to Gloversville in the 1850s. He was in the glove business with his brother Harvey during the Civil War, but retired after peace was declared. In 1874, Hick’s brother Oscar died, leaving him with a large fortune. Wealthy and without a full time job to occupy his time, Hick turned his attention toward the city he called home.
Kasson was generous with his wealth, giving Gloversville its first sewer pipe – laid under contract by him – supported a number of civic bands (which he referred to as “my babies”), and was largely responsible for the first telegraph line in the city at his own personal expense.
Kasson helped to establish a hose company and served as a deputy sheriff for a time. One particular incident on February 8, 1882, saw Kasson punched in the face while breaking up a fight at the circus. Kasson responded by hitting the offender with his billy club, then tumbling with him to the ground. By all accounts, Hick Kasson was a larger than life character with no shortage of love for his adopted home city. An article in the Morning Herald published in 1930, nearly forty years after his death, recalled: “. . . any way that he could see to help the village he loved as his own he was always ‘Johnny on the Spot.’”
For all his wonderful achievements, however, that of which he was most proud was the Memorial Hall. Named in memory of Kasson’s late brother Austin, and constructed in 1881 at 26-40 N. Main Street, the behemoth of a building was built in the Second Empire Style. This architectural design originated in Paris, which of course made it the height of fashion in the US even 30 years after it first. A notable feature of Second Empire, which is visible still today on the building, is the mansard roof, a four-sided roof with a shallow or flat top and gambrel windows. The building still stands out as unique among the buildings lining N. Main.
Memorial Hall’s first floor had space for businesses as well as a post office, but it was the opera house upstairs that was the real show-stopper. The beautiful space included fabulous hand-painted details on the ceiling and boasted the most modern advancements in fire. The opera house had exits in every direction, allowing the removal of the crowd within 3-8 minutes and distributing the flow of people in various directions to avoid a jam at the doors.
An article about the topic read: “Not only the public have been considered, but Mr. Kasson contends that the life of an actor is just as precious.”
The opera house brought a variety of acts and contemporary celebrities to Gloversville, including John Phillip Sousa, Boxing Hall of Famer “Gentleman” Jim Corbett – who picked up acting after his boxing career and incorporated this talent into his performances as much as possible – and Evelyn Nesbit. Those who don’t recognize Nesbit’s name might know her face; she was idealized as the “Gibson Girl” by artist Charles Dana Gibson, and famously married to millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw, who shot and killed prominent architect Stanford White at the packed rooftop theater at Madison Square Garden. Burlesque was also a common attraction, with groups like Renz-Stanley and Sam T. Jack’s Creole Blondes taking the stage.
Not only did the opera house bring culture, but it served as a convenient meeting place for the community and often hosted political events. In 1896, retiring Congressman Sloat Fassett appeared there, along with Congressional nominee and another of Gloversville’s favorite sons, Lucius Littauer. Accompanying them was the NYC Police Commissioner. Attendees couldn’t know that in three years, they would elect this man Governor, and then he would enter the White House as William McKinley’s Vice-President before being sworn in after McKinley’s assassination and then winning his own four-year term. (Do you know who it is yet? Theodore Roosevelt. Remember that for Jeopardy!) Patsy Suydam, a local author and artist, wrote and published a beautiful book about the Kasson Opera House, which I highly recommend you check out. In it, she writes that “the first six rows at the Opera House were reserved for ‘the ladies’ when Theodore Roosevelt spoke there . . . Women, lacking suffrage, did not often attend political rallies but because Roosevelt was a war hero and a Republican, ladies were allowed.”
Hick Kasson died suddenly in 1892. His will laid out his desires for the Memorial Hall, that it be “maintained in a manner to be a credit to the city, an honor to him whose name it bears, and that no intoxicating liquors shall ever be permitted to be sold on the premises.” In 1905, the opera house was renamed the Family Theater. Vaudeville performances took the place of operas and plays. The Glove Theater was constructed next door in 1913 and it wasn’t long before film became the popular entertainment of the day. The Glove was purchased in 1920 by J. Meyer and Louis Schine, brothers whose theater and hotel chains spanned the country. They acquired Memorial Hall and converted the opera house to three floors of offices, as well as a private screening room.
In an article in the Morning Herald published March 15, 1930, George H. Burch wrote: “Memorial Hall / Its Glory Fades / March of Progress / AJ Kasson’s Pride / Old Days and New / Famous Players / In Old Hall / All Now Changed.” Burch wasn’t pleased with the state of things: “Then came the day of the movies. The old hall degenerated into the Family Theater and into cheap vaudeville and pictures. Then the Schines sold their other theaters, the Glove and the Hippodrome, to the Fox interests. Now the old hall is converted into offices, said to be the finest in the city. But ‘Hick’ Kasson would turn over in his grave, just the same, if he could but know of it.”
And so time marches on.
Today, the building is known as Schine Memorial Hall in a nod to the building’s long history. Some highly motivated and admirably dedicated citizens have a plan for this true gem. The building received a new roof and paint, and repairs were made to the interior and exterior of the first floor. I would say that Kasson’s legacy is still going strong here. The building houses a number of businesses, arts and cultural interests, and a fabulous gallery on the top floor. The screening room is still there, by the way. I need to give a big shout-out to Ron and Trina Zimmerman for indulging my historian’s curiosity and not only showing me the screening room, but letting me climb up into the attic and see the painted ceilings of the original opera house and the old posters that plaster the walls. It’s really, really cool.
In fact, I’m sitting here typing this at a little table in Mohawk Harvest, having enjoyed a bagel and sipping on a coffee blend called “Sacandaga” from a locally-made ceramic mug. I’m facing the large windows looking out on to Main Street, every so often watching the traffic and studying the facades of the buildings across the way. It’s cozy here, warmly lit and dry while the rain drizzles down outside. Someone was talking about snow earlier, and I’m thinking now about how excited I am for the upcoming tree lighting. The creaky floor, the sound of the steamer, the chatter of other customers, and the muffled noises from the kitchen at the back of the building are a pleasant soundtrack.
The Schine Memorial Hall website, schineongloversville.com (go check it out) reads: “The members of our LLC have purchased the building because we are committed to preserving a historic building and wish to enhance the vitality of downtown Gloversville through the sustainable stewardship of this beautiful building.” These are the goals we should all strive to achieve. Honor the history. Look toward the future.
I believe in Gloversville because I believe in the people who live here. I believe that working together and focusing on the positive is the key to continuing the great improvements that have already been made. Just take a walk downtown and look up.
About the Author:
Samantha Hall-Saladino is the Executive Director of the Fulton County Historical Society in Gloversville, NY and the Fulton County Historian. She is a life-long resident of the Glove Cities. Though she spends much of her time tangled up in the past, Samantha can also be found on stage in her local community theatre and cuddling her dog Dixie, drinking too much coffee with her nose in a book.