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Opera Houses

Article and photos by Kathleen Walls


In the 19th century, opera houses were the ultimate mark of civilization. Big cities and small towns strove to open and maintain an opera house. In this era before movies and TV, live entertainment  was the  only public entertainment available. Even small towns opened Opera Houses to attract traveling entertainers. Many were called "Grand" which came from the theatre guide book of that time period and was designated to theatres meeting certain qualifications regarding the building's structure. In spite of the name, it was not only operas that were performed in the theatre. In most cases they provided a place to perform the most popular traveling shows of that time, including vaudeville shows, minstrels and even some of the earliest silent movies. Here are some of the most interesting I have visited.

 Springer Opera House–Columbus, Georgia

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Performance of Phantom of the Opera at the Springer Edwin Booth's portrait at the Springer

Springer Opera House in Columbus is now Georgia's State Theater. Visualize yourself seated in the Springer in 1876. The five-year-old theater is renowned for its curved double balconies, delicate tulip lights and high proscenium arch. Wealthy merchants, planters, and steamboat passengers declared it the finest theater between Washington and New Orleans. You lean back in your seat and watch the plush velvet curtain rise. The incomparable Edwin Booth, brother of man who shot President Lincoln, strides unto the stage to portray Hamlet as only he can do.  This was the place to see and be seen. Edwin booth's ghost is reputed to remain at the Springer along with many other spirits.

Throughout its career, the Springer hosted the cream of the crop. Ethel Barrymore, Oscar Wilde, Buffalo Bill, Lilly Langtry and hosts of other famous thespians have trod the boards of the Springer's stage.  It also provided a hotel on the upper floors where many of the actors stayed. Then, with the coming of the great depression, touring companies no longer travel to the great stagers of America and Europe. The Springer begins a slow decline. It served as a movie house for a time and was on a collision course with the wrecker's ball.

In 1964, a group of civic-minded citizens realized that an irreplaceable treasure was being lost forever. They partially restored the aging dowager and once again it fulfilled the purpose for which it was born, live theater.

Then in 1999 the restoration was complete. Once more the Springer envelops you in Edwardian splendor as you watch some of Broadway's biggest hits. The hand stenciled designs, the gold leaf topped columns, the lavish antiques and paintings filling its lobby and halls; all conspire to transport you to the early 1900a. You feel the magic that only a live performance can produce

Grand Opera House–Macon, Georgia

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Entrance to the Grand Opera House in Macon Balcony of the Grand Opera House in Macon

The "Grand Lady of Mulberry Street" was built in 1884 by W.R. Gunn, one of the top theatrical architects of the day. Gunn, who had designed more than 100 other theatres in the United States, boasted "I am the only theatrical architect and practical builder in the U. S. of A. who will guarantee the line of sight and acoustics when the entire control of the auditorium and stage is under my supervision, and will forfeit $1,000 when my construction proves a failure in either case." Mr. Gunn got to keep his money.

The theater was originally called the Academy of Music and its 58' x 90' stage was the largest south of the Mason-Dixon Line.  The theater seated 2,418 patrons, almost one-fifth of Macon's population at the time. It wasn't until its 1905 renovation that added its current seven story facade that it became known as the Grand Opera House.  In its career, the Opera House has seen its share of famous and strange performances. The 1908 production of Ben-Hur employed live horses and chariots  The performers at the old theater read like a "Who's Who" of  theatrical greats: Charlie Chaplin,  John Phillip Sousa, Sarah Bernhardt, Will Rogers, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Lionel Barrymore, Ethel Barrymore, Bob Hope, the Allman Brothers Band, Ray Charles and Harry Houdini.  Presently the stage has  a number of trap doors, one of which is still in operation. Locals in the know claim the trap doors were installed specifically for Houdini's spectacular escapes.

In 1936, the movie industry put the grand old dame on the skids. It tried to remain solvent as a movie house and hosted Macon's only Hollywood premiere, 1945's God is My Co-Pilot. It went downhill fast and by the 1960s plans were afoot to replace it with a parking lot.

Fortunately, in 1967, the Macon Arts Council, a group formed to save and restore the Grand stepped in. They raised money for renovation and had the property placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.  For a time, it reopened as a live theater in 1969 as the group continued their fund-raising efforts. Its latest salvation came n 1995 when Mercer University signed a lease with Bibb County to manage the Grand. Today, it looks much like it did in its heyday.

You can still catch a performance there. The Season at the Grand features professional productions but many local performances are held there as well. Of course, it has its resident ghost as well. Randy Widner, the former managing director who committed suicide in a room called the Thunder Room above the stage in 1971, may pop out and chastise you if you are not respectful of "his" grand old opera house.

Grand Opera House–Meridian, Mississippi

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The Grand Opera House in Meridian The famed "Lady" in Meridan's Opera House

Between 1890 and 1927 the Grand Opera House in Meridian, Mississippi, provided east Mississippi and west Alabama with its cultural entertainment, ranging from operas sung in both foreign languages and English, traveling theater companies and minstrel shows. In the late 1800's, two Jewish half-brothers,  Israel Marks and Levi Rothenberg saw the need for a grand entertainment palace in Meridian. They built the Grand Opera House and the Marks Rothenberg department store, adjourning each other  in the heart of downtown. At that time, Meridian was a common stopover for rail passengers between New Orleans and Chicago and a very fast growing city.

Wanting the best quality for their money, they hired J.B. McElfatrick of New York and St. Louis, who had designed over 200 theaters in the United States, including the National Theater in Washington D.C. and the Metropolitan Opera House in Philadelphia, to design the interior of the opera house.

The stage, at 30 feet wide by 50 feet deep, could accommodate the largest, most lavish New York productions. The 35-foot high arched proscenium was framed by an elaborate painted border featured the portrait of a lady, perhaps a famous actress of the day.

The Grand Opera House opened on December 17, 1890 with a performance of Johann Strauss's, The Gypsy Baron. Over the years famous names like   Sarah Bernhardt and Henrik Ibsen appeared there. Minstrel shows were popular and even African American companies such as "Black Patti" graced its stage.

Like other opera houses of its day, the advent of movie pictures spelled doom for the Grand. Involved in lawsuits between Sanger, who had leased the building and due to the depression was reneging on its lease, and the Rothenbergs, it closed its doors in 1927. The lawsuits dragged for decades. Sanger wanted to gut the building and renovate it for office space but fortunately their lease prevented it from being used for any purpose other than a theater. Due to all the legalities, the Grand Opera House was left virtually untouched from the time of its closure.

This was a blessing in disguise. When restoration began the High Victorian architectural features were largely intact, including the original tin ceiling, exquisite wood work, wainscoting, and actual remnants of over 60 different wall coverings. The "Lady" was still perfect. She just needed a little cleaning. She has become the symbol of the Opera House and the legend of her ghost is commonly told at the theater today.

It took over the next two decades to save the Grand Opera House and restore the Marks Rothenberg building as a convention and meeting center. A big factor was a $10 million contribution from The Riley Foundation to restore the beautiful theater.  It reopened in 2006 as Mississippi State University's  Riley Center for Education and Performing Arts

Couse Opera House–DeSmet, South Dakota

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Original stained glass from the opera house Some of the memorabilia Patti has salvaged from the opera house

DeSmet South Dakota, best known as one of the hometowns of Laura Ingles Wilder, author of the Little House series, once had a flourishing opera house. The closest you can come now is when you visit Ward's Bakery. Ward's is a great place for lunch or breakfast and is located across the street from what was once "Pa Ingalls's store. Ward's owner, Patti Ward Slater, has converted it to her family living quarters but she had retained many of the best architectural features of the old theater. I was lucky enough to be invited to see it and was impressed.

The building now housing Ward's Restaurant and Bakery was Edward H. Couse's hardware store when Laura Ingles lived in DeSmet. In those days, the town had no place for meetings or public entertainment.

The local citizens wanted a place to host traveling theatrical shows and hold suppers, dances, and other events. In 1886, Mr. Couse replaced his frame hardware store with a magnificent two-story brick

forty-four-foot front building.   He had the second floor fitted out as an opera house and decided on a unique way to dedicate the new facility. He offered a free kitchen stove and cooking utensils to the first couple willing to be married in the new theater. Of course, he had plenty of volunteers.

The event was a smashing success and over the next three decades, the Opera House was the prime spot for not only entertainment such as minstrel shows, musicals and vaudeville acts, it provided a place for local social events.

In renovating the old theater as her home, Patti Slater had managed to retain most of the architectural features of the grand old theater.

Grand Opera HouseDell Rapids, South Dakota

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Grand Opera House in Dell Rapids Joan Rasmussen on the stage of the Grand Opera House

One of Dell Rapids' grandest buildings is the Grand Opera House built in 1888. With the help of grants, Joan Rasmussen, the new owner is restoring "The Grand" to its Romanesque Revival splendor with round-topped windows, a balcony and decorative stepped cornice.

Even on the frontier, Opera Houses were "the thing." By 1888, citizens were demanded  an opera house in their town. It took a tragic fire to ignite the spark that would eventually create the opera house. In February, a fire raged in the business district of Dell Rapids and destroyed among other buildings, the Merchants Hotel. The lot the hotel stood on was owned by two local businessmen, J.A. Cooley and M.R. Kenefick, former Dell Rapids mayor. After the hotel was destroyed, they announce plans  to construct a two-story building with two stores and an opera house with seating for nearly 450 people.

The building was constructed of rose quartzsite stones from the Dell Rapids quarries and was opened on November 5, 1888.   An arch in the building's center opened to the entrances of the two stores and the opera house. Simple wood chairs were the first seats in the opera house.  They could be moved to a raised gallery for dancing or activities that required the use of the main floor.  Two coal burner stoves heated the theater and kerosene lamps light both the stage and auditorium.  The house lamps were extinguished during performances. Long troughs in front of the stage held the lamps that illuminated the actors. It was crude compared to some of the theaters but the residents were thrilled with their opera house.

The Clair Patee Company was the first troupe to perform at the Grand Opera House in 1888. Their offerings included The Martyr and A Night Off. Vaudeville, minstrel, musicals and even medicine shows graced its stage over the years.

By 1912, like elsewhere, the movie business was edging out live performances. The O'Leary brothers purchased the building and turned it into a movie theater. By the late 1920s, they added sound equipment for "the talkies." Around 1936 it closed its doors and remained deserted until it was bought in 1951 by a W.F. Karel. There were some half-hearted efforts to restore the building but nothing serious happened until recently.

Joan Rasmussen has been a hands-on worker in this project. for her it has been a labor of love. She hunted and found much of the fixtures and items used in the renovation. One of her favorite finds are the signatures she found inscribed on the stage walls. Some date back to 1897.  When her youngest son went to school, she began to think of a project. She told a friend "If someone would renovate one building in downtown Dell Rapids and do it well, the entire downtown would take off."

He replied, "It's waiting for you."

Judging by the job she had done on the Dell Rapids Opera House, he was so right.


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