Around 1883, the Village of Walton built a hall containing village offices, a firehouse, and an opera hall. On the evening of Dec. 10, 1912, the hall burned to the ground, causing the fire bell to fall through the burned out structure and crack upon impact. That bell was ultimately recast and rehung at a cost of $200.
Insurance provided only $8,000 with which to rebuild, so in March of 1913, architect William T. Towner designed the Richardsonian Revival Hall that stands today. By June of that year, it was apparent that the appropriation was insufficient, so a referendum was scheduled for June 21, when residents were asked to approve another $15,000.
For the first time, women were allowed to vote in a general election, and the passage of the measure was dwarfed by the other headline details: “Referendum passes; women vote for the first time; only three ballots ruined!” The village hall would ultimately cost $57,460.67 to build, housing the theater, the village clerk’s office, and — for many years — the Walton Fire Department.
Building progressed quickly, and on April 21, 1914, “Within the Law,” a professional/amateur production, opened to a standing room only crowd of approximately 1,500. (The current seating in the main auditorium is 400.) The grand opening generated such interest in the area that a special train from Delhi was added to the regular schedule to accommodate theatergoers. A picture of the event shows a packed house and balcony, and a live orchestra, with many people standing in openings in back of the audience and along the side aisles.
Often, circuit troupes came to the theater, and along with local actors, mounted lavish productions, both musical and dramatic. Pictures taken from the time reveal lush tableaux and costuming, all of which arrived with the troupe. Many area residents grew up in the theater during its heyday as a movie house. A local farmer remembers coming to the movies on Friday nights when other farmers, fresh from the barn, would take advantage of their only night out for a quarter a ticket. “The smell in here was pretty ripe,” he recalls, “but you didn’t always have time to get cleaned up before you came out to the movies.”
One resident remembers going to the theater to hear Theodore Roosevelt speak. She remembers a sense of great disappointment. “His voice was small and squeaky,” she recalls. “Not that of a Rough Rider at all!” Many residents recall their graduations and class nights, held on the stage of the Walton Theatre, and many reunions since have chosen to donate to the restoration of the theater. In the 1960s, the movie screen was permanently moored to the stage, dooming the future of the theater for live productions. This was only one of the problems to be addressed by the Restoration Committee.
The theater was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, and on April 21, 1986, some 72 years after its opening, recognizing that the theater had fallen into disrepair, then-mayor Raymond Baldi established the Walton Restoration Committee to oversee the restoring of the theater to its former glory.
The theater has gone through many phases over the years, hosting professional troupes of Vaudeville players and the likes of Tom Mix. Live productions alternated with movies, which were shown since September of 1914, but thrived under the hand of area theater mogul, William Smalley, who leased the space in 1923 and maintained it for many years.
Since its naming in 1986, the Restoration has made much progress – some very visible and some not at all. Some of its first efforts were to restore the lobby, which involved stripping years of appalling paint colors; duplicating the Dutch door of the ticket office; stripping up a glued-down cheap carpet to reveal the original tile floor; carpeting the aisles and the foyer and painting most of the woodwork throughout the theater.
When the foyer was being restored, those same “standing room” openings that were pictured in the photo of opening night were found to contain stained glass, which had been boarded over and covered with crushed velvet to darken and to provide poster display space. The glass was restored, resealed on the audience side and backlit to shine into the foyer.
The committee also oversaw the renovation of the meeting hall above the lobby and the building of a “temporary” thrust stage into the lobby so that live productions could return to the stage. The committee had targeted the stationery screen, and in 2002, Rehabilitation Support Services, the tenant of the theater responsible for returning first-run movies to the Walton Theater, applied for a received funding to replace the screen with a roll-up and to install a surround sound system in the theater. With that giant leap forward, the Restoration Committee was able to pay to have the shell that the old screen was mounted on removed, and to have the ceiling raised and an extra wall removed, effectively opening the stage to its original proportions.
The Delaware River Stage Company has been a frequent presence on the stage of the Walton Theatre, often using proceeds from its productions to support the restoration effort. In addition, Music on the Delaware has started holding its musical productions in the theater, from chamber music, to a brass ensemble, to the American music of Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. These productions, as well as a Beatles group, filled the house in most cases.
After the reclaiming of the stage, the Restoration Committee mounted a fund drive to purchase period reproduction seats, which would also help pay for the remaining projects in the restoration. In the interim, in the spring of ‘04, the committee “lucked into” 400 seats from the 1950s, in decent condition, which were purchased for a donation of $200, providing more comfortable seating for theater patrons until restoration goals are complete. The current fund drive is for $150,000, which will replace the seating, restore ceilings and walls and refinish the floor. After that, it’s only a matter of restoring house lighting before attention can be turned to restoration of fire escapes and alternate exits from the cellar so that all of the dressing rooms can be utilized.