College Street Music Hall

December 11, 2020

In 2015 the marquee lights turned back on at the old Roger Sherman Theatre on College Street. The College Street Music Hall has been central in bringing a wide range of national touring acts and people back downtown since it opened, adding to the historic legacy of that particular plot of land dating back to the mid-1800s.

The performance history of that side of the street on the block between Chapel and Crown Streets on College Street dates back to 1848 and the construction of the College Street Church. The church is reputed to have been designed by Henry Austin, as a visual homage to the traditional New England meetinghouse. The College Street Church was home to a congregational parish. The parish diminished over the years with the influx of immigrants and the rise in popularity of other denominations, along with its very close proximity to other congregational churches (primarily around the corner on the New Haven Green). In 1895, they accepted a bid for the property from Yale University and moved to a smaller location on the corner of Chapel Street and Sherman Avenue. Yale converted the building into the first home for their music department. It was then known as the College Music Hall. With the construction of Sprague Hall in 1917, Yale sold the building and it became the Rialto Theater, a vaudeville and moving picture hall. The Rialto tragically burned down on November 27, 1921 during a performance of the movie The Sheik taking 8 lives and injuring more than 70 people.

In 1926, the Roger Sherman Theatre opened on the spot of the old church. Built by Arthur Friend, for the cost of $1,000,000, the grand new cinema was to be the flagship of the new Roger Sherman Corporation theater chain. It was built in the finest Spanish style, complete with stucco walls, lavish murals, and desks located in the hallways for patrons to stop and take in the luxury of casual letter-writing. Not only was there a 2,000 seat theater but a bowling alley was also attached to the building. It was constructed to be fireproof, in order to avoid a similar tragedy to what had occurred on the grounds before.

The Roger Sherman initially played first run movies on a bi-weekly basis. The opening film was The Sea Beast starring John Barrymore. At the time it was renowned as “one of the best sea movies of the year.” Live performances of historical sea shanties accompanied the picture on the stage similar to vaudeville style of the Rialto. By the 1940s the Roger Sherman had become part of the Warner Bros. studio empire.

The culture of cinema continued to run deep through New Haven in the mid-20th century, ironically as the grand old marquees were rapidly disappearing due in part to urban renewal. It was still an occasion to see first run films at the Roger Sherman and stop by the Anchor for a drink after and talk about movies with other patrons. This period arguably peaked in 1969 with the world premiere of the box office hit, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid at the Roger Sherman. The film’s stars, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, along with Joanne Woodward and Barbra Streisand, among others were in attendance.

In the 1970s the Roger Sherman Theatre remained open but its former elegance continued to slide in unison with the general condition of the Elm City. While films were still shown, they tended to be more in the vein of b-movies, Blaxploitation films and occasionally pornography.

By the 1980s downtown New Haven was hit hard under the weight of recession, de-population, widespread poverty and the AIDS epidemic. The corner of College and Chapel Streets was a ghost town. Developer Joel Schiavone planted the seeds for a renaissance of the theater district. Along with the Hotel Taft, he bought and renovated the Shubert Theater and the Roger Sherman, which was rechristened the Palace Theatre, becoming predominately a music venue. From the 1980s through 2002, acts such as Bob Dylan, Phish, The Black Crowes, Fiona Apple and many others appeared on the old stage.

That musical legacy has continued uninterrupted once more at the College Street Music Hall from 2015 until this year. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the theater and other music venues across the city have been shuttered. As the possible end of the pandemic draws near it is vital to remember and support these theaters, businesses, and the lives of those who work and perform there so that the curtains will once again draw and the shows will continue to go on.

Jason Bischoff-Wurstle
Director of Photo Archives, New Haven Museum

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