Old Church Theater (OCT) has been operating out of the historically significant “Old Church” building in Bradford since 1984, which is the oldest public building in the town.
In 1781, Vermont passed a statute that each town support a local church. In 1782, Bradford residents voted to raise £20 per household to pay “town charges” for preaching, and prepared for the eventual construction of a meetinghouse, to be paid for by a resident tax assessment. Five years after the end of the American Revolution (1783), a town committee was appointed to choose a site for the meetinghouse in 1788. They chose a place on Upper Plain, near the current site of Oxbow High School. Debate over how to pay for the public building continued for another five years. During this period, in 1791, Vermont joined the Union as the 14th state. In March 1793, town leaders decided to pay for the town church through the sale of pews, rather than taxation. It was completed in 1794 at a cost of £2,000. At the time, the majority of Bradford residents favored Congregationalist preaching.
Over the next decade, other religious denominations erected churches in Bradford and the surrounding areas. In 1807, the State of Vermont became the first state in New England that ended religious taxation. Towns were no longer allowed to levy religious taxes to support public churches due to the increasing number of residents in the state paying taxes to support a denomination they did not attend. In 1809 the Bradford town church disbanded, in part due to declining membership, but reorganized the following year as the Congregational Church.
In 1814, the Congregationalists hired the Scottish minister Silas McKeen, and membership over the next few decades grew. McKeen served as minister from 1814 to 1832, and again from 1842 until 1866. Starting in 1833, Vermont continued removing the ties between church and state. Town meetinghouses which previously could serve both municipal and religious functions, were increasingly physically separated. In 1835, the Congregationalists purchased the “old church” building from the town of Bradford for $275, while at the same time George Prichard purchased an empty lot on Main Street for $200. In 1836, the building was disassembled, moved to the plot on Main Street, then reassembled and expanded on the current site of the Bradford Congregational United Church of Christ. The building was dedicated in 1837, and a church bell added in 1838.
Consistent population growth in the area throughout the first half of the 19th century contributed to an increase in the membership of the Congregational Church. Four years after years after the end of the Civil War, in 1869, membership exceeded 500 parishioners. The Victorian era’s Italianate architecture was popular in the design of ever-grander public buildings, and in 1876 local contractor George Farr completed the construction of a new Congregational Church, complete with a decorative clock tower. The “old church” was moved to the south (on the same lot) in 1875 to make way for the construction.
In 1875, while the new church was being built, the “old church” was sold to the Ladies Society (of the Congregational Church) for $200. In 1876 the building ceased to have worship services and was renamed Village Hall. The Ladies Society managed Village Hall until 1889, when major renovations were needed. That year the Ladies Society incorporated into the Bradford Village Hall Association, forming a stock company “for the purpose of furnishing a suitable hall for entertainments.” The building was raised and set further back from Main Street to its current location. It was placed on a new concrete foundation to allow for basement dressing rooms, a green room, and an enlarged stage. The renovation was completed by January, 1890 at a cost of $2,000.
Over several decades beginning in 1877, Village Hall hosted a variety of community events, including stage plays, vaudeville, Bradford Academy basketball games, and musical concerts. It was wired for electric lights in 1897, and the screening of motion pictures began in 1908. From 1877 until 1921, Village Hall, operating first under the management of the Ladies Society, and then under the Bradford Village Hall Association, was a completely woman-run community organization, and building.
In 1921 (a year after women gained the right to vote in the United States) Village Hall Association sold their building to the highest bidder, George A. Jenkins, for $1,515. According to the local newspaper, “The business has been well managed, but the time seemed ‘ripe’ for disposing of the property, and by the wish of the stockholders this has been done. The Hall will be used for entertainment purposes.” Jenkins renamed the building and its business, the Colonial Theatre.
By the end of the 1920s, Colonial Theatre was showing movies three nights a week. They were silent films, with live, local musical accompaniment. A few years after the invention of “talkies” in 1927, Colonial Theatre installed a new sound system, and “talkies” were screened to the public starting in 1931. The theater continued its tradition of live entertainment in addition to the movies. Bradford Academy activities continued until 1936, when the school built its own gymnasium and auditorium. The small louvered square window that remains on the front gable of the building is a reminder of the Colonial Theatre days—ventilation for the projection room. George Jenkins served as proprietor of the Colonial Theatre until his unexpected death in 1941, but The Colonial continued to show movies until 1948.
In 1949, the building was sold to the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) Champion Lodge #17, who owned it for the next twenty years. In later years of their ownership, the Odd Fellows rented the hall to the Women’s Fellowship of the UCC Congregational Church for their annual rummage sale.
In 1970, coming full circle, the Congregational Church purchased the building from IOOF for $6,000 and used it for Sunday School classes. They rented the auditorium to the Jaycees for a summer repertory theater. Later, the Congregational Church rented to various groups for use as a theater, including a group from New York City’s Off Broadway. This is when the name Old Church Theater was assigned to the building. As part of the Bradford Village Historic District, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
In the early 1980s, Maryalice Klammer and Dominique Buffair, finding the building largely empty when they moved to Bradford from New York City, rented it from the Congregational Church and founded Old Church Theater as a community theater group, with the purpose of presenting live summer theater for the residents of Bradford and area communities. The first performance of Finian’s Rainbow opened in the summer of 1984.
Upon their retirement from their roles in the administration of the theater in 2004, a 12 person volunteer Board, consisting of local community members, was established to continue the work and role of Old Church Theater. The By-laws of the organization were also created at that time. In January, 2012, Old Church Theater became a registered 501(c)3 Domestic Nonprofit Corporation. In 2021, the Congregational Church sold the building to Old Church Theater.
OCT is committed to presenting quality works; encouraging community participation in theater and the theater’s participation in community activities; encouraging the personal growth of participants by stretching their abilities and talents and raising expectations for community theater.
Old Church Theater has presented over 35 years of summer productions geared for family entertainment. The actors, directors, stage managers, costumers, stage designers, lighting and sound technicians, Board Members, and all other roles required in the operation of the theater—including, occasionally, playwrights—are mostly local residents, although it is not uncommon for volunteers to travel greater distances.
Participation in theater arts is always welcomed, regardless of ability or background; OCT offers training, assistance, and encouragement in a supportive environment for anyone who wants to further their theatrical skills, for any personal or professional reason, on or off stage.
OCT is currently in the process of restoring this historic building.