The Old Havana Theatre is new again
MONTOUR FALLS—When long-time theatre buff William Christoffels retired from his day job in 2010, he began researching Charles Cook in the Montour Falls Library. This was step one in his plans to write a play about the larger-than-life figure described by Schuyler County Historian Barbara Bell as the “The Father of Schuyler County.”
Step two would be bringing the play to life. Helpful people at the library suggested this could be done right next door, in the theatre above the Montour Falls Village Hall. Which is one of the buildings, coincidentally, built by Charles Cook. Step two was swiftly sidelined for a side step in a slightly different direction.
“When we walked up here to look at it,” Chrisoffels says, gesturing expansively around the old-fashioned room with chandeliers hanging from its high ceiling, an elaborately columned apron stage added to the room in the early 1900s and 1978-vintage wallpaper and patterned carpeting, “It just cried out for melodrama.”
For the uninitiated, it’s a form of theatre that’s highly dramatic, often silly, and a great deal of fun. There’s always a villain, whose usual prey is a lovely, innocent—and surprisingly resourceful young lady. Before virtue triumphs, there’s a bit of entertaining kerfluffle; then the villain is defeated and ultimately “pied” by the heroine. That’s the ultimate punishment, when the heroine adds the further humiliation of “pie (in the face) justice” as decreed by the audience. “And the hero and heroine always get together in the end,” Christoffels explains.
As, in this instance, Christoffels and a new theatre. Melodrama fills the menu for the Old Havana Courthouse Theatre in Montour Falls. Opening Friday, June 3, its ensemble cast will present four plays in repertoire this year, on Friday and Saturday nights through Sept. 3.
The cast includes the unplanned Montour Falls theatrical debut of Chrisoffels himself, who has previously appeared on many other stages. Due to the untimely departure of one of the actors, he’ll be playing the part of the devious and dastardly dentist in the show, “D.K. Molar.”
From the moment he began working on the Old Havana Theatre project, he realized this is exactly what Schuyler County, and particularly Montour Falls, really needs. For years, people visiting the area have been asking what sorts of entertainment were available after 6 p.m.
“And these days, we all need to laugh,” he says. “This is Saturday Night Live meets Old Time Theatre.”
It’s taken a lot of thought and energy. Since last fall, Christoffels has been working on upgrading the stage with energy-efficient LED lights, renovating the tiny back-stage areas; adding more seats to the current seating—plumply-cushioned pews recycled from the former Montour Falls Presbyterian Church which burned in the 1930s; adding a chairlift for handicap accessibility. He’s built sets, like the train-track winding around the stage, waiting for a heroine to be tied to it; located and created props, worked on advertising. It’s all been accomplished, Christoffels says, with ingenuity and a credit card. The theatre is intended to become a profitable venture. “But are we going to make a profit? Probably not,” he says with a shrug.
The efforts have been met with a lot of enthusiastic community support. Mayor John King supplied the piano. The actors are all locals—real people with day jobs and a lot of theatre experience. Director Camilla Schade is a transplanted local known to many through her one-woman show, “Performing Therapy,” and her work at the Hangar and Kitchen Theatres in Ithaca. Donna Christoffels, William’s wife, is the company’s music director.
Schade has been enjoying the challenge of directing melodrama. “It’s totally based on timing,” she says. “As with any theatre piece, the characters believe what they’re doing and live as truthfully as possible, but everything is larger than life.” The actors sometimes talk directly to the audience, gestures and emotions are bigger.
“Sometimes you see the character, sometimes you’ll see the actor,” she says, concluding, “Comedy is serious business.”
The theatre already seems to offer delightful possibilities of a ripple effect. The coffee shop in the Montour House is opening an ice-cream parlor. Other emporiums along Main Street are also hoping to enjoy a resurgence of traffic. “We’re hoping to put Montour Falls on the map,” Christoffels says.
On a typical Friday or Saturday evening, after visiting wineries, shopping for local specialties and dining in one of Schuyler County’s many culinary oases, the theatre-goer in search of entertainment will find the doors open at the second-story playhouse at 6:30 p.m. Before the play begins, there will be musical entertainment, mostly vaudeville songs from the early 20th century. Presiding over the pre-play festivities will be the Judge—because this facility was originally built as a courthouse—acknowledging birthdays and anniversaries, giving away t-shirts and skimmers (hats). The plays are short, lasting about one and a half hours. Then there’s ice cream, or coffee or dinner or wine within easy walking distance of the theatre, to round out an evening Christoffels hopes, will become a repeat attraction for locals and tourists alike.
Certainly, there’s an extensive repertory of melodrama, antique and modern to choose from. And with a five-year lease on the space and growing interest in expanding its use as a performance space by other theatrical and musical groups, “We will be here,” Christoffels promises.
Tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for kids. They may be purchased online at OldHavanaTheatre.com or at the theatre box office before performances, as available.