On a crisp December Saturday night, now many years ago, I tricked myself out in vaguely 19th-century garb: high stovepipe hat, tailcoat, flowing scarf, cape, and cane--all found in my partner Alain Pioton's antiques shop, the Hudson Antiques Center [536 Warren Street], which he had opened in 1985. That night, unusually for a Hudson winter's eve, Warren was filled with folk, some of them also in costume, all wandering from one end of the street to the other, ogling the rich glitter of decorated shop windows and tempted to enter by savory delicacies too inciting to refuse. Musicians played in many shops and walked musically along the street, crowds, Pied Piper-like following, joining in the song.
In my invented role of 19th-century street vivant, I passed among the merry crowd, chatting with friends and strangers. My message: "Here I am, a ghost of Christmas past, come to tell you that this new night on the town is the invention of Hudson's oldest treasure, brought to life again: the Hudson Opera House."
It was the first Winter Walk. It was 1997.
In that year, the Board of Directors, who had overseen the restoration of the decrepit building since acquiring it in 1992, had been casting about for a citywide event to celebrate the season and highlight the ongoing revival of one of Hudson's grandest buildings, which was as well one of America's oldest surviving theaters, built in 1855. Taking a cue from history, we called it then the Hudson Opera House, for 19th-century Hudson had called it that. And who could doubt that it was--and is--operatic, even if, between the date of its construction and that street walk in 1997, only one opera had ever been performed there.
Though no divas regularly commanded the stage nor tenors thrilled the audience with golden tones, the Hudson Opera House had offered a variety of identities. It was built as Hudson's City Hall, but it also housed the police station, the Franklin Library, and the First National Bank of Hudson. Its huge auditorium saw lectures, musical and theatrical events, cotillions and graduations, and even, it has been claimed, poultry shows. Eventually, the poultry were replaced by the Moose. It was their fraternal lodge.
But then the building was abandoned and sold to an "out-of-town developer"--a phrase that darkly suggested demolition, a fate that it began to seem might indeed become a reality. But that fate was not to be.
After years of standing empty, the building was acquired by a group of Hudsonians, all optimistic and amateur enough not to realize the true scale of what we had begun. By 1992, as a non-profit corporation, we had ownership of the building. Our grand plan was to restore it and open it again, for Hudson, as the Hudson Opera House.
Despite the passion of the board, it could not be denied that during those years the project was ignored by many, viewed dubiously by some, and scoffed at by others. To some, it seemed a pointless folly, a cause already lost, a project agonizingly slow and costly. For many, there was a whiff of elitism about it. An opera house? In Hudson?! In what way could it ever have a connection with "real" Hudson life?
We saw what was needed was a way to link the project of the Hudson Opera House--immediately and publicly--with the increasingly vibrant city life that had been sparked by the arrival of antiques dealers in the 1980s and bolstered by new residents who had heard about the excitement. We knew that the Hudson Opera House had to take to the streets. At a board meeting, Carole Clark, owner of the always fondly remembered Charleston restaurant, produced a masterstroke: the appealing and alliterative suggestion for a street event. She called it a Winter Walk on Warren. And thus it came about.
I returned to Alain's shop from my perambulation in the crowded and festive street. Just as in the other shops, waves of visitors were flowing in, sampling mulled wine, munching sweet savories, and looking with pleasure, curiosity, or sometimes mystification at what we had to sell. Ensconcing myself in the window in a rather grand thronelike chair, still Micawberesque in top hat and cape, my voice carried to the street by a microphone cunningly hidden, I read from A Christmas Carol to the crowds bemused by this talking apparition from another age.
"He had never dreamed that any walk could give him so much happiness."
--Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol