WEOS Finger Lakes Public Radio

The Smith Opera House offers virtual "Ghost Light Tours"

May 21, 2020


With performance spaces due to be some of the final businesses to reopen from the New York State pause, many continue to find ways to reach their audiences virtually, online.

Like many theatres, The Smith Opera House has been hosting music performances, which they release as videos on social media. But, they’ve also made one of their popular attractions available online as well.


Since 2018, Hobart and William Smith Colleges Associate Professor of Theatre Chris Woodworth has conducted tours of The Smith Opera House. Professor Woodworth originally created the tour as part of preparations for The Smith’s 125th Anniversary in 2019. But, they’ve proven to be a popular Wednesday morning attraction. So, in late March, she suggested taking the tours online as videos. The Ghost Light Tours have provided an opportunity to revisit some of stories of The Smith that had previously been published as part of Professor Woodworth and her students’ research, but to also go deeper into those stories.

One of those stories has a particular resonance given stay-at-home orders during the current pandemic.

“In 1898, a theater company which had previously performed in Geneva at the Smith Opera House returned with their blockbuster hit, Joshua Simpkins. That was also the name of the company, and it turns out that they brought smallpox with them to Geneva. So, in the matter of public health, they had to be quarantined. Initially they were quarantined in their private rail cars, which were sprayed down with formaldehyde and left parked at the edge of the city. But that was not enough to both keep them in and to keep looky loos from getting near to them. So the public health officials and the city aldermen ultimately decided that they needed to do something on a grander scale to quarantine the company. So, they ended up being quarantined on a boat in the middle of Seneca Lake for about five weeks. They were quarantined on the Onondaga.”

It’s a story that was dramatized for the 125th Anniversary Celebration of The Smith that Professor Woodworth produced. William Smith student Gretty Holister performed the role of one of the company members in a short play written by Rochester playwright Scott Seifritz.

“Clara fell ill and as the only other female in the company, I knew I'd finally get the role of Elizabeth Rumbottom, the young suffragette who foils the plans of the evil mill owner and rescues the orphan children from the mine collapse. The lead role I was born to play.”

The quarantined theatre troupe was the subject of the first Ghost Light Tour.

In looking back at the history of The Smith, Professor Woodworth finds lessons on moving forward.

“There were many moments in the history of this building when it seemed that all hope was lost and its demise was certain. And each and every time the community made sacrifices and donated time, treasure or talents to save this crown jewel of the Finger Lakes. So whether we look at the period when The Smith, which was then called the Strand, was closed for weeks and weeks in 1918 due to the influenza epidemic ravaging, ravaging the world, or if we look at the history of the building in the 1970s when it was crumbling and in danger of being demolished. The key to each period of difficulty was community.”

The Ghost Light Tours are offered every Wednesday evening at 7:00 p.m. on The Smith Opera House Facebook page, where past episodes can be viewed as well.