Cultural Heritage Tours


Downtown Tour

Poli’s Bijou Theater

26 Church Street


Postcard of Bijou Theater, c. 1910. Courtesy Joe Taylor.

Sylvester Zefferino (S.Z.) Poli was born in Bolognana, Gallicano, Lucca, Tuscany, Italy in 1858. Soon after, his family moved to neighboring Piano di Coreglia. He came to America in 1881 with little more than the ability to carve lifelike figures from wax, a skill gained through apprenticeship under French sculptor M. Dublex, and parlayed his talents into a grand theatrical empire in his adopted home of New Haven. In 1885 while working in New York, S.Z. met and married Rosa Leverone of Genoa, Italy, and together they had five children.

The Polis settled in New Haven in 1892 and S. Z. opened Poli's Eden Musée which featured wax figures he had created in Italy. In 1893, Poli’s Wonderland Theater was opened in a building originally used as a church and until 1874, was the location of St. Mary's Church (#11 on this tour). This proved to be the start of one of the largest and most lucrative chains of East Coast vaudeville and movie theaters. It was at the Wonderland that Poli showed the first motion pictures in New Haven using the French cinemagraph. In 1907, the 1,430 seat Bijou Theater, considered to be an outstanding example of theater architecture in its day, opened. Players like Houdini, Sophie Tucker and George M. Cohan performed for large audiences in Poli's magnificent theaters throughout the Northeast.

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