Plans to erect a brand-new theater in downtown North Adams began with the Sullivan brothers in the early part of 1901. They already owned the Wilson House and Sullivan Block, both on Main Street. The Wilson House already had its own opera house, but the Sullivan brothers wanted to bring an air of elegance and style to the theater experience. They hired J.B. McElfatrick & Son, prominent theater architects, from New York City to come up with the designs.
The unveiling of the plans for the new theater occurred in April of 1901 when the Transcript published an outline of what theatergoers would expect to see. It would be built in the rear of the Wilson House which would have a front on Holden Street, but would adjoin the Wilson House for easy access by guests of the hotel. The theater would be four stories in height with the front edifice being made of “pressed puff bricks with marble trimmings.” The theater itself would hold 1,400 seats involving the main floor, a balcony and a gallery. There would also be 10 boxes, “one on each side on the first floor and two on each side of the second and third tiers.” The orchestra was located just below the stage in front.
The stage itself was 60 feet in width and 72 feet in length. There were 15 dressing rooms, some on the first floor, most on the second and third floors. For the public, there was ‘a ladies’ parlor, smoking room and a check room as well as easy access to the balcony and gallery, as well as the main floor.
Within 6 months, at the cost of $75,000, the Empire Theater opened its doors to the public on the night of October 2, 1901 with the presentation of the play “Lover’s Lane”, performed by the Hulest Theatrical Company of Troy, NY. The near sold-out crowd enjoyed the show as well as the interior finery. From then on, theater was one of the best attractions in North Adams.
Over the years, the Empire Theater offered a variety of plays and shows including “Prize Speaking Contests” with members of the various fraternities of Williams College, and other interesting acts such as VerValini & Goodman, Creole Musical Comedians. Ethel Barrymore appeared in 1908, performing in the play “Two Leading Ladies,” and by 1910, the theater began offering motion pictures as well. One of the first showings was the silent movie “For Her Sister’s Sake” staring Mary Fuller and Florence Turner.
Everything was going well for the Empire Theater until tragedy struck in the early morning hours of July 2, 1912. At 2:45 AM, a fire was noticed in the Wilson House and it quickly spread to the theater. Despite the best efforts of the North Adams Fire Department, both buildings were a total loss. The value of the Wilson House was $102,490.80 and the value of the Empire Theater was $68,040.00. Through insurance monies, the brothers were able to recoup $135,000 for the buildings. The loss didn’t include the contents of the structures.
Eventually the brothers rebuilt a second Empire Theater that was a bit smaller than the original as it had no gallery, but it equaled in the amount of flair. On September 2, 1929, that theater would be rechristened the Paramount Theater when the Publix Theater Corporation took over the management.
As a side note, two years after the Sullivan Brothers built the 1901 Empire Theater in North Adams, they hired J.B. McElfatrick & Son again to build a theater in Pittsfield. It became known as the Colonial Theater and it was built using the same designs as the Empire had. So, if you’ve ever been inside the Colonial Theater, then you know what the Empire Theater looked like in North Adams.
Adapted from a story from Hoosac Trails, Volume XXXI Issue III (March 2022)