Gene A. Chesley (1935-1981) was a highly regarded scenic designer, theatre historian, and teacher. Chesley taught in the Dramatic Art Department at the University of California, Davis, (UCD) from 1963 until his death at age 46 in 1981. As a UCD faculty member, Chesley began an eleven-year project to identify and document extant historic theatres, opera houses, and performance halls in all fifty states. He became a renowned authority on American theatres built between 1800 and 1914 and a strong advocate for the renovation and preservation of theatres.
Chesley's interest in documenting America's historic theatres began in 1964 when he noticed a dilapidated local opera house. When I first came to the Davis campus, I lived in Woodland for six months. I realized the Woodland Opera House was there and the scenery was there too. Later on, some colleagues and myself made an effort to save the scenery and create some interest.
The Woodland Opera House renovation inspired Chesley's search for other California theatres and, then, nationwide. Chesley's efforts led to the National List of Historic Theatre Buildings, which was initiated in 1970 to provide a "body of written and graphic materials describing the location and condition of buildings still standing in the United States built between 1800 and 1900, designed specifically for theatrical performances."
As his reputation grew, Chesley, and his extensive network of experts, consulted with individuals and groups interested in the rehabilitation of decaying theatres. Chesley published numerous articles on theatre restoration and served as a consultant for several projects including the rebuilding of the Eagle Theater (c.1849) in Sacramento, California, and the restoration of the Woodland Opera House (c.1896) in Woodland, California. Chesley's files expanded to include a variety of materials on theatre renovation, restoration, and rebuilding. Chesley commented in 1975 that while not all buildings are worth saving, old theatres are being restored constantly. Maybe it's nostalgia, but people have discovered that it is sometimes not always desirable to level out these old buildings and make parking lots or pancake houses.
In 1976, Gene Chesley, Robert D. Stoddard, director of development of the Grand Opera House in Wilmington, Delaware, and Michael P. Price, executive director of the Goodspeed, an 1871 opera house in Connecticut, formed the League of Historic American Theatres (LHAT). Chesley served as the organization's first vice president and was president at the time of his death in 1981. Dedicated to encouraging and assisting in the preservation, restoration, and use of historic American theatres, the League continued Chesley's efforts to identify performance halls in all fifty states. It also published a directory containing information on the architecture, history, and current use of existing theatres. The League organized annual national and regional meetings, sponsored a newsletter, and supported restoration efforts across the country. In 1980, the LHAT hired an executive director and relocated its offices to the National Theater in Washington, D.C. In 1997, the LHAT moved its offices to Baltimore, Maryland.
The League of Historic American Theatres is an international nonprofit association concerned with the cultural and architectural heritage of historic theatres. Its members work locally to serve and rehabilitate theatres in large and small communities across North America. League members include preservation activists, specialists in the preservation and renovation of historic buildings, scholars in American architectural and cultural history, and experts in theatre operation and management. After Chesley's death, John W. Frick and Carlton Ward continued Chesley's original project and eventually published the Directory of American Theatres (NY: Greenwood Press, 1987) on behalf of the League.