27 Main St. 
Northampton, Ma 01060

Movies are shown nightly around 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.

$7 Adult
2 for $10 Student  
$5 Senior Citizen 


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Not Your Average Theater

by Jill Sarber

Sitting with popcorn and soda in hand, I anxiously wait for “Hotel Rwanda” to begin.  As I gaze around, I admire the tall ceiling, the sculpted trim of the stage and the rows of green velvet folding seats, and begin to wonder what it was like to be here waiting to see a performance by the tenacious French actress, Sarah Bernhardt, in 1906, or the mysterious Harry Houdini during the 1920s.  It is 7:10 p.m. The lights begin to dim and the red curtain ceremoniously closes only to reopen moments later. The movie is about to begin.   

Welcome to the Academy of Music Theatre, located at 27 Main St. in Northampton , Massachusetts , near Smith College.  The theater was built in 1890 by a native of Northampton and a Boston businessman, Edward H. R. Lyman.  Lyman envisioned a theater in the city that would “be suitable for lectures, concerts, opera and the drama for the public good.”  From its beginning, the Academy of Music has done just that.

The theater opened on May 23, 1891 . Its program for the evening included music from Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” Beethoven’s “Consecration of the House,” Haydn’s “In Native Worth and Honor Clad,” and other pieces of music performed by rising stars of the late 19th century.  Today, the theater offers mostly independent, not mainstream films.  They, host live performances of music and dance.  On April 17, the Brazz Dance Theater performed Afro-Brazilian and Contemporary Dance, and on April 23 the theater hosted a dance contest similar to the one in the movie “Napoleon Dynamite.” The film was shown following the contest.  The Academy of Music is more of a community center than a movie theater.


Originally, the theater was only open in the winter and tickets cost $1 (tickets for the more famous entertainers went for $1.50).  Today, the theater is open year round.  Tickets for adults cost $7, students can get a discount, two tickets for $10, and seniors pay $5 per ticket.  While the ticket cost averages roughly the same in comparison with other theaters, this one is different because you don’t just pay to see a movie; you also get a sense of the great history this building contains. 

“I think the Academy of Music is a great theater,” said Heather Gasper, 21, a UMass student.  “They play movies that most mainstream theaters like Showcase and Cinemark don’t play.”

While the small, brick building may not look like a grand historical theater from the outside, inside it has retained much of its original architecture. This includes a high painted ceiling, gold trim around the stage, and two Tiffany stained-glass windows above the doors between the inner and outer lobby that were given to Lyman by Mr. Tiffany himself as a gift.  The stage is behind the   


Edward Lyman

Edward H.R. Lyman, the founder of the Academy of Music, was born on Feb. 10, 1819. He was descended from Northampton's early settlers, dating to the  early 1660s. Lyman had four siblings and six step brothers and sisters from his father’s,  previous marriage (his first wife died). Catharine, the youngest, was the grandmother of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Edward Lyman attended school until he was 15 when the Round Hill School disbanded. He then went to work for Almy Blake & Co., a dry goods dealer in Boston. He became a partner in 1841. He married Sarah Elizabeth Low in 1846 and lived in Brooklyn until his death on Jan. 20, 1899. 


movie screen and still has the trap door that was cut out for Harry Houdini’s mysterious disappearing act.

Now there are antique posters that advertise entertainers from the early 20th century along the lobby walls and, before the movie begins, the white screen projects advertisements for local businesses.  Here, modern pop culture is complemented by antique artifacts making this building and the whole movie-going experience different and interesting.

“Coming to see a movie in this theater is unique because you are sitting in an opera house,” said Jean York, a part-time employee at the theater for the past 12 years.  “It’s not like the mall where it’s all cold and concrete.”

The theater’s capacity is 800 people including the balcony.  The balcony is normaly only when they have live shows.  The closed-off balcony is like a room in your house you are forbidden to enter; you just want to sneak in and discover why it was closed off.  York tells me that it is simply because not enough people fill the lower level for just movie showings.

Another reason this theater is unique is it was the first city-owned theater in the country and at its 100th anniversary, in 1991, it remained the only one.  On Feb. 6, 1893 , Edward Lyman signed a deed of gift handing over the theater to the city of Northampton . 

Duane Robinson, the director of the theater since 1971, explains that even though the city owns the theater, it does not support it financially.  "The city does not support the theater with its tax dollars," he said, "So, without the support from our patrons, we would not be here today.  We are in essence a non-profit organization."   

Robinson added that the theater has applied for and received state and federal grants in order to preserve the antique building.  During the 1970’s, Robinson undertook an expansive project of restoring the badly deteriorating theater, which included a new stage floor laid on top of the old one, replacement of worn rigging used to haul scenery into the flies, and complete renovation of the bathrooms and the “star” dressing room.   The repairs cost $56,000. 

In 1989, the Friends of the Academy Society was established to organize fund drives in order to help raise money for theater improvements over the years. Recent renovations include a new heating system, air-conditioning, an updated fire alarm system, and a handicap ramp.

The Academy of Music Theatre is not your typical movie theater.  It provides an ambiance for movie-goers that is historical and comforting in today’s world of mainstream films and overpriced concessions. 

While Harry Houdini may have disappeared from the stage long ago, this theater remains deeply rooted in this community’s heritage.

This website was created by the students of Journalism 375 at the University of Massachusetts 2005