In 1869, in downtown Poughkeepsie, during the Collingwood Opera House’s inaugural season, Mark Twain delivered a lecture titled “Our Fellow Savages of the Sandwich Islands.”
In March 2006, almost 140 years later, Bob Dylan—a songwriter also known for his social commentary and linguistic shenanigans—stepped into the same theater (renamed the Bardavon 1869 Opera House), not to perform, but to work on material for the recording which became the Grammy-winning Modern Times. The same artist returned in March of this year to rehearse behind closed doors for a European tour.
“Mark Twain, Bob Dylan—there’s a relationship there,” says Chris Silva, executive director of the Bardavon, a nonprofit entity that brings performing arts (primarily theater, music, and dance) to residents of the Hudson Valley. Bardavon venues include the historic theater on Poughkeepsie’s Market Street, the restored Broadway Theater of the Ulster Performing Arts Center (UPAC) in Kingston, and parks, schools, and community spaces throughout the Mid-Hudson area.
Besides Twain and Dylan, whom Silva calls “two of the great poets of America,” artists who have performed on the original Bardavon stage include Will Rogers, Sarah Bernhardt, Al Pacino, John Philip Sousa, Patti Smith, Isadora Duncan, and Martha Graham. During the theater’s history, other individuals have used the venue to address, enlighten, and influence audiences, among them, Julia Ward Howe, William Jennings Bryan, William McKinley, Jr., William Howard Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In the late 1860s, coal and lumber magnate James Collingwood built the theater as a “palace of amusement” for the citizens of Poughkeepsie, on the former site of a coal yard he owned. When the facility opened in 1869, it seated 2,000 people, a quarter of them on benches on the third level, the “peanut gallery,” where peanuts were the snack of choice. In its current configuration, the Bardavon seats 944.
In 1923, the theater was transformed into a combination performance and movie house (reflecting the popularity of talking pictures); and in 1975, the building was rescued from demolition by a committee of local citizens. The group bought the building, and, due to its efforts, in 1978 the theater was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Since 1979, the Bardavon has been operated as a performance venue by the nonprofit corporation Bardavon 1869 Opera House, Inc. “We’re very proud of what we do here,” says Silva. “It’s hard, though. Ninety percent [of it] boils down to fundraising. We do all of these shows, and all of these programs, but it’s always a hustle. Resources change. Politics change. Governors come, and governors go. Corporations take over other corporations. It all affects us, because we always have to ask, ‘Where are we going to get the funds for our programs?’”
In addition to ticket sales, which contribute only a small percentage of the Bardavon’s income, funding comes from county, city, and state agencies, the National Endowment for the Arts, corporations, foundations, and individual members of the community. The Bardavon has 20 full-time employees and relies on 150 volunteers to help maintain operations.
In 1994, Silva was hired as the Bardavon’s executive director, after having worked as a director and producer for more than 20 years in New York and California. While working in Manhattan, he was the associate director of Joseph Papp’s Public Theater during the US premiere of Sam Shepard’s “Curse of the Starving Class” and supervising director for Shepard’s “Fool for Love,” starring Ed Harris, Kathy Baker, and a pre-“Moonlighting” Bruce Willis. When Silva was the supervising director for Shepard’s “A Lie of the Mind,” the play received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play of the year for the 1985-86 season.
Four years later, and after serving as program director for New Dramatists, an organization for playwrights, Silva produced and directed “Three Ways Home,” a play written by his wife, Casey Kurtti. When Columbia Pictures purchased the movie rights in 1989, Silva and Kurtti used the funds to move with their family to Ulster County’s Stone Ridge, where they worked as freelancers in theater and film. After Sony bought Columbia Pictures, The “Three Ways Home” project went into limbo and has never been produced. Silva and Kurtti continued to freelance, though, and when Silva heard about the Bardavon position, he went for it.
In 1994, soon after Silva accepted the job, a shooting occurred near the theater. The horrified reaction by the press, and the theater’s subsequent drop in attendance, dismayed the former New Yorker. He says, “I had lived in [New York] City, and I was used to everything. That wasn’t the case here. Things got magnified.”