Once Upon a Dance Ė The Clark Opera House

Editorís Note: The Norwich Dance Club is celebrating the history of ballroom dancing in Chenango County this week with a number of events, including an exhibit at Guernsey Memorial Library and a Community Ballroom Dance at St. Bartís Parish Center on Saturday. For more information, visit www.norwichdanceclub.com.

By David Graham


Dancing in Bullthistle Country in days gone by ranged from the round and square dances of the hinterlands to the fancy dress balls of urban society. The purpose of this column is to give the reader a quick look back at the role dancing played in the lives of our ancestors. While most of the old ballrooms (public or private) graced by earlier generations of dancers are long gone, one supposedly still exists in the building that was once the Breese/Clark Opera House on West Main Street in Norwich (see picture above). Built in 1882 it was purchased by the Masonís in 1913 and still bears the Masonic Temple designation on the front. As recently as a few years ago, enough of the old ballroom existed for a dancing exhibition to be put on there.

Across from the Court House, this was the location selected for many of the Charity and Benefit dances held in years past. Just a few of these are described herein.

First, on Thanksgiving night in 1899 the Alert Hose Company Number One held its 14th annual Thanksgiving Ball (continuing a tradition that started in 1885) in the Opera House. An initial 30 minute long concert was followed by dancing to the music of Bakerís orchestra of Binghamton. A lavish supper was served by Whitman Stratton at the American Hotel (see the picture) prior to the concert and dance.

The supper menu included:

Blue Points (Long Island Oysters on the half shell)

Boneless Turkey Ham Ox Tongue

Green Olives Salted Peanuts

Chicken Salad Mayonnaise Dressing

Oyster Patties Saratoga Chips (French Fried Potatoes perhaps)

Finger Biscuits

Wine Jelly Lemon Jelly

Neapolitan Ice Cream

Nut Layer Cake Chocolate Loaf Cake

Angel Cake

Bananas Oranges Grapes

Tea Coffee

The total price for concert, dinner and dancing was $2 per person.

In another instance on Monday evening, April 18th 1902, an Easter Ball was held at the Opera House by the George Rider Hook and Ladder Company and the Alert Hose Company. Iris D. Dibble, the chef of the Eagle Hotel, was in charge of the banquet held before the dance in the fire hall (most likely the original hall because the new hall was built in 1902 and was probably not ready in April of that year). This particular dance followed a New Yearís Ball and a Leap Year Ball in that same year. The popular Waterville Military Band provided the music for dancing following the apparently usual pre-dance concert. The rooms of the Norwich City Band across the hall (assumedly in the Opera House) were used for the gentlemanís smoking and coat rooms. The location of the ladyís powder and cloak rooms is undefined. Shown below are some of the receipts giving an idea of costs associated with putting on a big dance in Norwich in 109 years ago; 1100 tickets cost $2.00, the band charged $75.40 and the rental of the hall was about $25.00.

Finally In an undated Norwich Sun newspaper article contained a reference to a Charity Ball (an annual event) held at the Opera House to benefit the Chenango Valley Home for Aged People. The pre-ball concert included a selection by the Norwich City Band Orchestra. Dancing commenced at 10:00 PM with nearly 200 in attendance. An elaborate supper was served from 10:00 to 12:00 by Caterer Bridget Hickey in the parlors of the George Rider Hook and Ladder Company assumedly in the Norwich Municipal Building/Fire Hall. Dancing continued to 1:00 AM with the City Band Orchestra under Professor Frank Green providing the music. $262.51 was raised for the Chenango Valley Home. Since this amount was considered a good return from the event, the author suspects that the dance occurred prior to 1920.

The author would greatly appreciate a confirmation of the existence for this ballroom and its current state from any knowledgeable person along with any information on other dances held the ballroom or anywhere in Chenango County for that matter.

Some of the information and photographs in this column were provided courtesy of the Chenango County Historianís Office. If you want to learn more about dancing in Bullthistle Country there will be exhibits at the Guernsey Public Library (9/17-22) and the Chenango County Historical Society Museum on Hale Street (mid-October). Any and all errors herein are strictly the responsibility of the author.

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