by Rachel Dworkin
All the young Italian couple wanted to do was see a movie at the Colonial Theater one night in June 1914. Alas, it was not to be. Despite having paid the 5 cents to sit on the first floor, they told they could sit on the second floor or nowhere. There were plenty of open seats on the first floor, so why were they sent upstairs? Because, according to the manager, they were Italian and not fit to sit with respectable people.
The Colonial Theater, 1933
At the turn of the 20th century, no one in Elmira much liked Italians. They had begun coming to the area in the 1880s, mostly young, single men working as laborers to send money back home. The Elmira Sunday Telegram described them as an “infestation” which “injured, materially and directly, the chances and prospects of the poor laboring men of the city.” According to the paper, they were “taking the bread form civilized people” by accepting just $1 a day instead of the $1.50 demanded by native-born laborers. Apparently, it has always been popular to scapegoat immigrants rather than confront the rich about their refusal to pay a living wage. By the 1910s, there were nearly 2,000 Italians and their native-born children living in the area. Their neighbors may have seen them as dirty job stealers, but they knew that, as human beings, they were worthy of dignity and respect.
The couple filed a complaint with the police alleging a violation of their civil rights. The police chatted with the management about it, and decided to do nothing. That wasn’t good enough for the Italian community. On the evening of June 29, 1914, a small crowd of nearly 30 Italians went to the Colonial Theater. They all purchased first floor tickets and were all refused entry. A small altercation broke out. Theater owner John J. Farren allegedly assaulted Italian Frank Tress and police arrested Anthony Pronpi for disorderly conduct after he shouted abuse at the theater staff.
Three men, Patrick Cassetta, Frank Tress, and Louis Muccigrosso filed a series of civil and criminal court cases against the managers of the Colonial Theater charging them with violation of the New York State Civil Rights Act of 1895. The law forbade discrimination in public accommodations, including theaters, on the basis of race, creed, color or nation of origin. Throughout July, there were five separate court cases concerning the incident. The theater managers were acquitted of all criminal charges, but were forced to pay $100 in damages in one of the civil suits.
The Italian community also petitioned the mayor to revoke the Colonial Theater’s operating license based on their repeated violation of the civil rights law. After a series of hearings, Mayor Hoffman sided with the Italians. On November 21, 1914 he issued the following proclamation:
“I have thoroughly investigated the charges contained in your petition of July 20, 1914, asking for the cancellation of the license of Colonial Theater, and I find that the management of the Elmira Theater Co., Inc. did, in effect, previous to July 1, 1914, exclude respectable people of the Italian race from the first floor of that theatre for no other apparent reason than the fact of their race, and that the management of that theater company did say on various occasions that it was the policy of their company to segregate their patrons. This action is clearly contrary to law and will not be tolerated in any theatre.
However, since the Elmira Theater Co., Inc. no longer holds the license under which the Colonial Theater is conducted, said license having expired and the license for that theater having been taken up by Mr. Buddington, I am unable to take any action at this time.”
Rachel Dworkin is the archivist at the Chemung County Historical Society. See more of the museum's blog HERE