THERE’S GOLD IN YOUR ATTIC THE
By: Michael R. Hurwitz
HISTORIC OPERA HOUSES AND THEATRES
It was one of those days that
began innocently enough, until the telephone rang. On the other end a familiar voice greeted me in a deep
baritone with a slight tinge of an Irish accent; it was my old friend, Ron, and he was calling from his home in the hills
of Southern Ohio. Ron and I had known each other for nearly thirty years. He had been the ‘beat’
cop in downtown Columbus, Ohio on the block where my father’s store was located. Come to find out,
his mother and my mother had been best friends and had gone to school together as children. I immediately took to this six-foot-plus Irish rogue; his stories
filled my working days with laughter and warmth and he was kind and thoughtful, and approached his profession with dignity
and common sense. He was a shining example of what a police officer should be. He loved
playing music, whether it was on the bagpipes or guitar, and he enjoyed sketching and drawing – he was pretty good too.
So on this lovely spring morning, hearing his voice perked my day up immediately and set me to thinking about all the
great times we had had.
Ron informed me that he had permanently moved from his home in Mt. Vernon, Ohio to the Hocking Hills and loved it.
‘Why didn’t I drive down and spend a day with him? He would show me around.’
I had always enjoyed visiting the Hocking area, Old Man’s Cave, Cantwell Cliffs and the Rock House.
My family made time each autumn to drive through this beautiful area of Ohio, stopping in Laurelville to buy cider
and apples, and then driving the ridge road with its spectacular views of the hills and valleys, awash with the fall colors,
and the air crisp and clean. So any excuse to visit the area was OK by me and Ron’s invitation was
just the ticket. The next day I was off on what would become an adventure that continues to this day.
I arrived in the sleepy little town of New Straitsville, home
of the “Moonshine Festival,” before noon and Ron greeted me from his front porch with a smile that was warm and
inviting. He had purchased the little house years before and had spent his weekends tromping the hills
and woods of the Wayne National Forest that literally was his backyard. Now this would be his permanent
home. He purchased a building on the main stretch of the town and had converted the upstairs into a Bed
and Breakfast for weekend travelers. He was anxious to show me around.
We began to drive to the neighboring villages and towns. There was Murray City and Nelsonville, and then he took me
to Shawnee. I was immediately taken with this small village. As you approached from the two lane highway, the
first thing you noticed was that the town sat up on a hillside, and at the foot of the hill stood a vintage caboose from a
long-ago train siding. As you reached ‘Main Street’ you were transported back in time, the storefronts,
with their second-story balconies gracefully arching over the sidewalks, with remnants of turn-of-the-century gingerbread
carvings visible on every surface. It reminded me of a movie set and I felt a connection
with this quiet community.
towns had once been booming with the discovery of coal and the importance that this mineral played in the economy of our nation
in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Springing from this boom were the towns that dotted the landscape
in rural southern Ohio, and they became flush from the money that was generated from the mining. The immigrants of the
late nineteenth century found their way here as well, the Irish and Welsh, the Hungarians and Eastern Europeans, too, found
work and security in the mines.
It was in a small cave
located in New Straitsville that the first meeting of the United Mine Workers took place, beginning the union that holds sway
to this day. So as Ron and I visited these hamlets you could see the remnants of that bygone time, buildings
that were stark reminders of a time that had been kinder and more prosperous to the community.In Shawnee Ron showed me a building in the center of the ‘downtown’,
the Red Men’s Opera House, built in 1907. It was one of two opera houses that provided entertainment
for the small village. Red Men referred to the fraternal organization of men that worked the mines
and built the facility.
I had to take a peek inside
and asked Ron if he could arrange it. On the street level of the building were two storefronts.
One was the current library. The other had housed the town’s movie theatre, long since closed,
with only the façade of the box office still present. As we climbed the steep steps
leading to the doors to the opera house my thoughts were of the many traveling shows that must have played this theatre.
Ron freed the lock and opened the doors, and in front of us, with thick cobwebs and dust an inch thick, stood the stairs
that went to the second story where the auditorium was located. At the top of the stairs was the box office
with a faded sign that read, “Tickets $.25” and, to the left, the arched entrance leading inside.
Once inside, a small balcony towered
on the left and to the right of the entrance was the stage, now standing in mute silence as a testament to the wondrous activities
that had taken place so many years ago. I was informed that the opera house had been renamed, the Tecumseh Opera House and that there was
an effort underway to raise the funding necessary to restore and renovate the structure. As I looked around,
my mind drifted back to a time of traveling shows and vaudeville, to the iterant lecturer and preacher, the likes of Billy
Sunday and William Jennings Bryan and to the Chautauqua circuit that visited these small towns and villages.
Without thinking, I asked how I could help; I wanted to be part of saving the opera house. The
mainstays of entertainment in turn-of-the-century (the twentieth century that is) America were vaudeville and the Chautauqua
circuit. In 1874, businessmen Lewis Miller and John Heyl Vincent, a Methodist minister, created what would
become the lecture and entertainment circuit. They began in western New York on lake Chautauqua, hence
the name. Originally their focus was on training Sunday school teachers but they quickly expanded their
range and even offered the first correspondence degrees in the United States. Word spread and soon communities
throughout the country were hosting their own version of a “Chautauqua” meeting featuring local speakers and entertainment.
The realization of the potential for traveling shows and artists within this circuit
caught the attention of the booking agent, Keith Vawter in New York City and he began to package performers and acts suitable
for the good folks in America’s heartland. The concept was a natural; performers could have a sustained
and guaranteed tour and the small towns, dotting the landscape, would be visited by national celebrities. With
the accessibility of the railroads, it made for an ideal situation for small town America and soon permanent structures were
built to accommodate these traveling shows. Audiences would be treated to classic plays and Broadway hits
and would hear music ranging from the Metropolitan Opera to glee clubs and bell ringers.
This was the time before radio, television, movies, and, oh yes, even the Internet. It was an innocent
time, a time of lemonade and shade trees. Time was somehow measured differently then. Along with the Chautauqua circuit came vaudeville, one of the
greatest concepts in entertainment that has ever been created. It was devised as a venue to bridge the
social gap that divided American audiences. By the mid 1800’s, entertainment had become very class
oriented as a result of the deadly Astor Place riot of 1849. Robert Snyder described it in this way, “After
the Astor Place Riot of 1849, entertainment in New York City was divided along class lines; opera was chiefly for the upper
middle and upper classes, minstrel shows and melodramas for the middle class, variety shows in concert saloons for men of
the working class and the slumming middle class. Vaudeville was developed by entrepreneurs seeking higher
profits from a wider audience.” By 1881 Tony Pastor, a successful entertainer and manager in NYC developed a “clean” variety show
and found it to be an instant hit, drawing an enthusiastic audience from men and women alike and soon the acts would be sent
on the road and reach the small town opera houses throughout the mid-west.
Signs were posted backstage for the actors and entertainers warning against the use of inappropriate language, “Don’t
say ‘slob’ or ‘son of a gun’ or ‘hully gee’ on the stage unless you want to be canceled
peremptorily. Do not address anyone in the audience in any manner. If you do not have
the ability to entertain the audience without risk of offending them, do the best you can. Lack of talent
will be less open to censure than would be an insult to a patron. If you are in doubt as to the character
of your act, consult the local manager before you go on-stage, for if you are guilty of uttering anything sacrilegious or
even suggestive you will be immediately closed and will never again be allowed in the theatre.” If a performer was tagged as using language that was unsuitable
they would receive a blue envelope with their admonishment and possibly termination, hence any material considered too risqué
was known as “blue” material in theatre parlance.
By 1907 the Chautauqua and vaudeville circuits were grossing $30 million a year and
providing entertainment to hundreds of thousands in small town America. The village opera house was the
hub of cultural activity for the surrounding community and while so named, seldom, if ever, was an opera performed on its
As Ron and I turned to leave, I took one last look around, and I quietly
made a commitment to myself that I would explore this fascinating chapter in the evolution of entertainment history and would
work to help save as many of these wonderful old structures as I could. How many opera houses existed in Ohio?
Were any in operation today? I had so many questions, and now the hunt was on. I
discovered that Ohio, like Indiana, Michigan, Kentucky and West Virginia, was not unique in the construction of the village opera house. In most states comprising the heartland, communities
came together and constructed these citadels of entertainment. Many
thrived for over three decades.
It wasn’t too long before I found
a hidden treasure in Hillsboro, Ohio, Bell’s Opera House, a true gem waiting to be reawakened by the townspeople.
Like so many of these structures, the theatre itself is located on the second floor of a much larger building, many
offering lodge halls on the third floor and shops lining the street level. Unlike the Tecumseh Opera
House in Shawnee, Bell’s offered a grander entrance and a larger seating area and balcony; it even had boxes on
either side of the stage. The front curtain, the “main” decorative curtain, was even there,
beautifully painted with the vibrant colors and design reminiscent of a bygone era.
then, I realized that an effort was being undertaken by the Ohio Arts Council and Heritage Ohio to save as many of these theatres
as possible and I quickly joined their efforts. The second annual conference dealing with Ohio’s
Theatres was held May, 2008, at Bowling Green State University to provide information about restoration,
tax credits, historic landmark status, as well as the equipment required to create a working backstage, for those communities
dedicated to the preservation and reclamation of these wonderful treasures. I discovered that several of
Ohio’s communities already have active opera houses; Stewarts Opera House in Nelsonville, the Chester Hill
Opera House in the lovely hamlet of Chester Hill, Ohio offers live entertainment in their restored facility, and, in
the village of Pemberville, Ohio, is a treasure of all treasures.
Pemberville Opera House was originally built in 1892, this time with Ohio’s northwest oil boom.
The completed cost was $6,000 and it boasted a two hundred fifty-seat capacity. The village opened
its doors to all the traveling shows crisscrossing the country. The “modern stage” offered
two trap doors, one on the stage itself and one leading to the scenery loft in the attic, and there were three dressing rooms.
Sliding a series of flats into grooves suspended from the stage ceiling effected scenes. As one
scene was exposed, another would be removed in a smooth transition. With a raked stage and a custom-painted,
roll-drop front curtain depicting a classical scene, the citizens of Pemberville were surrounded by elegance.
The auditorium was replete with stain glass windows and a large brass chandelier dominating the center of the space.
Imagine my surprise as I entered the Pemberville Opera House to find it almost unchanged in over one hundred
sixteen years! Without question it is the oldest operating opera house in the state of Ohio, and a shining
example of what can be accomplished with love and dedication by the citizens of any given community.
As I drove
back to Columbus my thoughts were of the project that lie ahead, to make an attempt to document the various opera houses and
community theatres that still exist, in various stages of restoration. From neglected to completed, their story is the
story of entertainment in early 20th century America and a story that needs to be told. When my telephone
rings, and I hear that baritone voice at the other end, a smile engulfs my face and I know that there’s a chance that
I am in for yet another adventure.