The Jews of Charlottesville played a significant role in bringing theatre and popular entertainment to the Charlottesville area in the late 19th and early 20th century, making a small city into a more cosmopolitan place. In so doing, they demonstrated the breadth of their interests in the secular communities of their town.
|In 1887 the Daily Progress editorialized about the poor condition of the Town Hall, the primary venue for theatre in the Charlottesville. Shortly thereafter, Jefferson Monroe Levy purchased and began to improve the building. He remade the Town Hall into the Levy Opera House, and at the turn of the century it was the center of theatrical arts from opera to vaudeville in the region.|
|Interestingly, while Levy, a Sephardic Jew, was not active in the religious life of the German Reform congregation in town, he did turn to the Jewish community for help in running the Opera House. Jacob Leterman and Ernest Oberdorfer, sons of the founders of the synagogue, were hired to manage the day to day operation of the theatre. In 1891 the Daily Progress observed that "Messrs Jake Leterman and Ernest Oberdorfer have succeeded in booking a list of first class attractions which will appear during the winter. The theatre is now being put in good order..the house is being newly papered and additional chairs are being put in the gallery."21|
In 1896, Leterman left the Levy Opera House and opened the Jefferson Auditorium on Main Street. This venture was so successful that it put the Levy Opera House out of business for a short time. When the Jefferson Auditorium burned in 1907, the Levy Opera House returned to its former position as the center of theater in town.
Jacob Leterman then expanded his interests in entertainment in Charlottesville. In 1907, as president of the Wonderland Corporation, he planned and opened the most spectacular amusement park that Charlottesville had ever seen. For months the newspapers ran front page stories detailing the progress being made on the construction of this resort in the Fry's Spring area at the end of a new street car line. On June 28, 1907, Wonderland opened to overflow crowds.
Wonderland had a grand entrance hall, a dancing pavilion, a bandstand, a billiard parlor, a bowling alley, shooting gallery, box ball alley, restaurant, zoo, and merry-go-round. The major attraction of opening night was "Dunbar - the Man of Mystery - a magician with the most modern of magical tricks and contraptions." Other acts booked at Wonderland included Ramsey's Polite Vaudeville Company, and the local Mountecastle Orchestra and the Citizens Band. Of particular interest, Wonderland offered free viewing outdoors of moving pictures, a new form of entertainment in Charlottesville. The Daily Progress wrote, "Mr. J.J. Leterman, the genial president and manager of the Wonderland Corporation, is to be congratulated upon his energy in providing such a delightful place for the amusement-loving people of this city to visit. The general opinion is that the resort would be a credit to a city of five times the population of Charlottesville." It closed after only two years of operation.22
|Theatre and popular entertainment were two examples of Charlottesville culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Music was yet another. No self-respecting town could be without its own municipal band; Charlottesville's was formed in 1922, after University of Virginia president Edward Alderman returned from a successful mission to Richmond to enhance funding for the university and to maintain its medical school. He was greeted at the train station by "several hundred citizens and a flat bed wagon with fifteen or so people playing band music."24 Out of this grew a commitment to establish a municipal band. The founders included Sol Kaufman, E.A. Joachim (a businessman), and Warren Cloud (C&O Railroad). As the band's first President, Sol presented the Band to the City on the occasion of its first concert in May of 1923. Also involved in this band was Elias Newman, a trustee of Congregation Beth Israel.|
(Courtesy Elizabeth Simon)
The Band became a symbol of town spirit and local patriotism. Today, it is the oldest continually operating municipal band in the United States.
There was room as well for relaxation from the labors of hard work in family-operated stores. Private clubs were formed for recreational purposes. One of these was Farmington Country Club, founded in 1927; Sol and Mortimer Kaufman were early members. In time, Farmington became more exclusive, eventually putting into place policies which restricted Jewish membership. When a Jewish friend was denied access, the Kaufman brothers resigned their memberships in protest.