Twenty-one-year-old S. Z. Poli came to America in 1881 with little more than the ability to carve lifelike figures from wax. He parlayed that skill into a theatrical empire and prestige in his adopted home of New Haven.
Players like Houdini, Sophie Tucker and George M. Cohan performed for working-class immigrants in his magnificent theaters throughout the Northeast.
New England’s Yankee elite never quite accepted the Italian immigrant who put on vaudeville shows. He probably didn’t care. He liked and understood the working-class immigrants who came to the United States to work in its burgeoning factories. They were the ones who filled his theatres in such blue-collar cities as Worcester, Bridgeport, Waterbury, Springfield and Hartford.
“I have remained always a showman,” he said. “I have sought neither diversion nor profit outside the theatrical field.”
People often compared him to P.T. Barnum, another Connecticut showman.
Sylvester Zefferino Poli was born at 10 p.m., on New Year’s Eve 1859 in Piano di Coreglia, Tuscany. He liked to joke, “I was a year old, two hours after I was born.”
His father was a church organist, his mother a baker. As a boy he showed promise as an artist. During the Franco-Prussian War, the family gave refuge to a noted sculptor, M. Dublex. Sylvester Poli then went to Paris with Dublex as his apprentice.
After he finished his military obligation in Italy, he returned to Paris to work at the Musee Grevin, a wax museum. He modeled in wax historical figures such as kings, queens, presidents, inventors, murderers and Jesus Christ.
Then he immigrated to the New York City in 1881 and took a job with the Eden Musee, which displayed ‘The Wonders of the World in Wax.’ In 1885 he married Rosa Leverone, and they had five children.
S. Z. Poli’s big break came with the death sentence of seven anarchists for the Haymarket riot in Chicago. The men were railroaded by the court, and the trial created an international sensation. While the anarchists awaited death, Poli got permission to reproduce them in wax with their real clothes. He exhibited the figures in a storefront, then took them on the road. In 1888, he formed a partnership and opened dime museums in Toronto, Rochester, N.Y., and Staten Island.
He then moved to New Haven in 1892 and built the Poli Eden Musee, another wax museum. The next year he opened Poli’s Wonderland Theatre in New Haven and staged ‘high-class’ vaudeville shows that ran as long as 12 hours. The shows were aimed at a working- and middle-class audience. The Yankee old guard viewed them as lowbrow, a sign of cultural decline.
Vaudeville had emerged from minstrel shows, burlesque, circus acts and dime museums, which P.T. Barnum took to their highest level. Early vaudeville was often bawdy and crude, the audience fueled by liquor.
S. Z. Poli, like his rival Benjamin Franklin Keith, insisted on elevating the tone of vaudeville. “Always, and at all times, I have been a strong believer in morality,” he said. “I have insisted always on clean shows, and have never tolerated anything that could be fairly regarded as unfit for public presentation.”
Poli hired now-legendary entertainers: Harry Houdini, Shirley Booth, Bert Lahr, Mae West, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen, Ray Bolger, Bill “Bo Jangles” Robinson, Will Rogers, Eva Tanguay, Theda Bara, Fred Allen and Baby Rose Marie (who later appeared on The Dick Van Dyke Show). He showed the first motion picture ever seen in New Haven in a theater he bought to show it in.
From his first museum in New Haven, S. Z. Poli went on to build and remodel magnificent, heavily embellished theaters. Some fell to the wrecking ball. Others reopened and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Some are haunted wrecks.
By 1916 he was the world’s largest individual theater owner.
Ultimately he owned 28 theaters, 18 in Connecticut. (Click here for a complete list.) When he retired at age 69 he also owned three hotels, 500 offices and two building sites.
S. Z. Poli remodeled or built magnificent showplaces. The Poli Palace in Bridgeport, now abandoned and said to be haunted, was designed in the Beaux Arts style by Thomas Lamb and was the largest theater in Connecticut.
When he bought the Franklin Square Theatre in Worcester, he renamed it the Grand and hired Lamb to double its seating capacity and transform it into a glittering palace. It is now the Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts and run as a nonprofit.
In Waterbury, Conn., the opulent Palace Theater reopened as a performing arts center. Thomas Lamb designed it with grand lobby spaces and ornate dome ceilings.
Friends in High Places
George M. Cohan described S.Z. Poli as a shrewd businessman and a warm friend. As a member of the Four Cohans, he once haggled with Poli over their pay. Poli stubbornly refused to give them a raise. Cohan and his sister then performed, their parents in the audience celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary. After the show, the house lights went on, and ushers marched down the aisle carrying an ornate silver serving set that they presented to Mr. and Mrs. Cohan, with the Polis’ compliments. So George asked S.Z. why he’d resisted giving them a raise when the gift cost far more than the difference in their wages. Poli then replied, “George, the salary was business, the gift is friendship.”
For his own anniversary celebration, S.Z. and Rosa Poli hosted a gala celebration at their home in New Haven. The local newspaper called it one of the handsomest entertainments ever given in the city. Their lawn was turned into enchanted gardens with hundreds of Japanese lanterns and an orchestra played until the early morning hours. Mayor Frank Rice was there, along with lawyers, corporate heads, garage owners, carpenters and clerks.
He never lost touch with his working-class roots, staying involved with the Italian community and helping the working poor. During World War I he helped organize a National Guard Company of Italian soldiers to demonstrate their patriotism to the United States.
Legacy of S.Z. Poli
Poli retired in 1929, having sold an interest in his theaters to Fox New England Theaters. After the stock market crash, Fox went into bankruptcy and Poli retained control. He then sold the remaining theaters to Loew’s in 1934. He died three years later in his home in Woodmont, Conn., on May 31, 1937. Poli left an estate worth $30 million.
He is credited with helping to transform the variety show into the vaudeville show.
Brett Page in 1915 described the transformation:
From the old variety show, made up of a singer of topical songs, an acrobatic couple, a tight-rope walker, a sidewalk “patter” pair, and perhaps a very rough comedy sketch, there has developed a performance that sometimes includes as many as ten or twelve acts, each one presented by an artist whose name is known around the world. One of the laments of the old vaudeville performers is that they have a place in vaudeville no more. The most famous grand opera singers and the greatest accost and actresses appear in their room. The most renowned dramatists write some of its playlets. The finest composers cut down their best-known works to fit its stage.
This story was updated in 2022.
Images: Palace Theater By Koskenart – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51408720.