Opera House History
In order to understand the history of an entity as important as the Opera House, we should understand the culture in which was it was created. The doors of the Opera House Theater opened to the public in 1892, but the building really had its beginnings several years earlier.
In the mid-1800s Morgan County was flourishing. By 1850 the population had grown to nearly 30,000. (Today it is less than 15,000.) Present day ghost towns like Santoy and Rosseau still bustled with activity. Several railroad lines crisscrossed the county. River boats moved freight, commodities, and people along the Muskingum. Showboats made regular visits to the banks of the river. McConnelsville was a vibrant county seat, and along with neighboring Malta, housed dozens of flourishing businesses. Mills, factories, hotels, restaurants, and retailers of every description provided ready employment and the chance for an urbane lifestyle. Morgan County had a desire for leisure pursuits, and for more cultured forms of entertainment.
By the end of the 1880s, a majority of the McConnelsville council thought the town needed a more suitable place to house the village government. So a controversial and protracted process of building a new town hall began. It was a politically charged issue that was reported through the filters of the two partisan newspapers – The Morgan County Democrat and The McConnelsville Herald. The first disagreement centered on the make up of the building committee. The democratic majority of the town council demanded that the committee be comprised of democrat business leaders from the community. The mayor and the remainder of the republican minority council members were opposed to building the town hall and opera house. For nearly a year, the council was in a stalemate. Neither side could garner the majority votes required to ratify the building committee. In October 1889, the democratic majority exploited an opportunity to move the project forward. The council’s democrat president, acting for the mayor in his absence, called for a vote. Without the mayor’s vote, the tie was broken, and the committee was approved. A month later, the Morgan County courts upheld the legality of the appointments.
The building committee for the town hall and opera house was composed of George Donahue, Worly Adams, and W. C. Conklin. A second issue that had to be resolved was the securing of a suitable location for a structure as significant as the town hall for the county seat. As it happened an ideal spot was available. It was in the very heart of McConnelsville, in what the newspapers called the “burned district.” (Editor’s note: The story has persisted since at least the 1960s that the Opera House is built on the foundation of the Brewster or Brewster Hotel. The first reference we can find to the Brewster Hotel is in a pamphlet history of the theater, probably printed in the mid 1960s. The author provided no citations or references to the source the information. An exhaustive search of real estate records reveals no such entry. No references to a Brewster Hotel are found in any county business almanacs or atlases. No account of a fire in a Brewster Hotel can be found in any of the newspapers. Even though photographs or engravings depicting all of the other three corners of the square exist, none of the northwest corner has been located. Strangely, very little information exists about what occupied this prominent spot.) In 1889, the town council initiated a series of transactions through which they ultimately acquired lots 31 and 32 on the northwest corner of the public square. They immediately recommended proceedings to condemn enough the “burned district” to construct a town hall. The property was purchased for $4000. In reporting on the story, the republican editor of the McConnelsville Herald declared that the property was only worth half that amount.
The council employed H. C. Lindsay, an architect from Zanesville to prepare plans for the New Town Hall and Opera House. The building was to be three stories high, and cost about $16,000. The Town Hall would have a tower that would rise 108 feet above the sidewalks of McConnelsville. The third floor would feature a grand ballroom running the complete 63-foot width of the building. Ground was broken for the project on Monday, October 20, 1889. Some of Mr. Lindsay’s designs were considered quite revolutionary. The Opera House’s ground floor auditorium was uncommon in the late 1800s, and it is one of the last remaining theaters of its period with that feature. The stage floor is “raked” or sloped by 3°, to allow the audience’s front rows to see the performers’ feet.
The auditorium’s central “echo dome” contributes to the theater’s nearly perfect acoustics. Lines spoken from the rear of the stage can be heard perfectly throughout the room. The second floor would house the offices for the town government. The original plans for the Opera House tower included a clock. But as the project began to run over budget, that plan had to be abandoned. And for one last time, partisan politics entered the project. The town council had requested funding from the state legislature to complete the town hall. According to newspaper accounts, a republican contingent rushed to the statehouse and convinced the assembly that the democrat council was squandering money on the building. No more funds were approved for the McConnelsville Town Hall, and no clock was ever installed. Nearly two and one half years after ground was broken, the Town Hall and Opera House were completed. Because it had been such a politically charged issue, the republican editor of the McConnelsville Herald commented one last time on the project upon its completion. He stated that “the owl” would be keeping an eye on the democrat council. Before the GOP adopted the elephant as its symbol in the twentieth century, the party had sometimes used the owl as its mascot. That owl still adorns the keystone in the archway over the Opera House doors.
The formal opening was held Saturday, May 28, 1892. The opening was to be a grand affair. The program for the evening was the Arion Opera Company’s performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado.” The cast, crew and orchestra numbered nearly one hundred. All of the eight hundred seats that were then available in the auditorium were sold. Railway excursions had been arranged from neighboring towns to bring the cultured and the curious. Many of the ticket holders were not so much patrons of the opera, but curiosity seekers eager to see what the newspapers described as the “light of the day.” The Opera House was the first building in the county to be lit by the electric light. And so its grand opening was to be even more significant and spectacular. But fate held an ironic twist. The local generating plant failed. The theater was plunged into darkness, and it took a great deal of last minute effort to secure enough lamps to illuminate the hall. Before that was accomplished however, many visitors had turned and headed back to their homes. So, the opening was not as grand as hoped. The newspapers reported that although the crowd was small, they were treated to a spectacular performance. Since the electricity was deemed unreliable, it was decided to go back and complete the installation of the gas and oil fixtures, which had been called for in the original plans. Gas footlights were installed on the stage. A gas chandelier was hung in the dome, and could be lit through small ports that were cut into the dome’s perimeter.
Over the years, the Opera House has accommodated an endless variety of performers and celebrities. Fire and brimstone evangelist Reverend Billy Sunday, William Jennings Bryan, and Senator Albert Beveridge spoke here. High School commencements and local minstrel shows were staged here. But, most spectacular were the traveling shows. Often arriving by train, the traveling shows brought lavish productions to McConnelsville. Specially constructed doors at the rear of the stage allowed the loading and rigging of the enormous backdrops. Set pieces over twenty feet tall could be slid in through the narrow doors. Trap doors were cut into the stage floor, so that as soon as the curtains closed, the doors opened and the actors dropped down a wooden slide to the dressing rooms below. This made the quick costume changes possible. The frameworks for those trap doors are still visible under the stage. Also under the stage is the dramatic evidence of a potentially disastrous fire that occurred in the early 1900s. The ash pit for the coal furnace sat directly beneath the stage. The furnace had been cleaned and re-stoked for a play, so the pit was filled with still hot ash as the performance began. While the play was in progress, the heat from the ashes ignited the joists supporting the stage. The curtain was dropped and the orchestra in the pit began to play. The fire brigade coming in through the stage door, extinguished the blaze, but not before a large hole was burned through the stage floor. The local stories are that the performance continued on half of the stage, and the Opera House narrowly avoided a tragedy. The basement of the Opera House hides other curiosities. The fan-shaped arrangements of the sloping joists beneath the auditorium were considered ingenious when the architect, Mr. Lindsay, designed them.
Perhaps nothing in the theater is more interesting, or mysterious, than its tunnels. For generations, the story has been told that the tunnels were once used to conceal the movements of escaped slaves, who were fleeing the south. They were said to have linked the building that once stood on the Opera House foundation to other locations in the village, and ultimately to the banks of the Muskingum River. After the theater was constructed, the tunnel leading across Main Street (then Center Street) to the Kennebec Hotel was used by performers in traveling to and from their rooms. Now, only the entrance is visible. The tunnel was filled in during the 1930s, out of a concern that the increasingly heavy traffic would cause a collapse. Any evidence that this site was a station on the Underground Railroad is inconclusive. Strangely, very little information exists about this prominent spot on the village square during the Civil War. The Opera House has many secrets, and is reluctant to give them up. In the late 1980s, while doing electrical renovations, workers discovered a hidden stairway leading from the second floor mezzanine to the village offices on the first floor below. How long that stairway had been hidden is uncertain. There was no indication that it existed before its 1980s discovery, and no one in the village could recall any mention of it.
In 1913 the theater was outfitted with a permanent system for showing silent films. A projection booth was partitioned off in the back of the balcony or “gallery” as it was known then, and a screen was added to the stage. The best seats in the house were those in the “Parquet Circle,” which are those in the front rows of the center section on the ground floor. These premium seats could cost, as much as 20 cents, while those in the “peanut gallery” were a nickel. The first sound pictures came to the Opera House in 1930, using the RCA photophone system. This cumbersome system involved synchronizing 78-RPM records with the film. The true “talkies” did not arrive in McConnelsville until 1936. The only time in its history that the Opera House briefly closed its doors to the public was for the installation of the sound projectors and the renovation of the auditorium. It was at that time the old projection booth was removed from the balcony, and the present booth was created above the second floor mezzanine, and behind the balcony. The theater continues to screen recently released films, as it has done nearly every weekend since 1936. The Opera House Theater’s auditorium was dedicated “Birch Hall,” in honor and memory of, MacDonald Birch Magician. Birch was a Morgan County native and frequently entertained his hometown friends and relatives at the Opera House, when he was not traveling the globe and entertaining before “the crowned heads” of the world. And, what would a hundred-ten-year old theater be without its resident spirits? At the Opera House, stories have persisted for over four decades about its apparition.
UPDATED HISTORY 12/23/2011
SOURCE: THE HERITAGE PURSUIT
OHIO COUNTY HISTORIES
HISTORY OF MORGAN COUNTY, OHIO
The first drug store of the town was commenced by Dr. S. A. Barker in July 1828, and was continued by him until his demise, when for a short time it was kept by his son. In 1854 it came into the possession of Dr. J. Alexander, and is still continued by him with a large, well-selected stock.
In 1843 or ’44 Kirker and Woodman- see opened a drug store in what was called the Springer House, east of the court house. In 1847 the drugs, etc., were sold to Israel Green and removed to the room adjoining that now occupied by Dr. Alexander. In 1857 Green sold to Dr. C. Robertson and S. Sprague. In 1858 they removed to the northwest corner of the square. In April, 1862, Sprague sold his interest to Dr. Robertson, who continued the business in the same room until the building was burned, together with a large part of the drugs, May 5, 1879, after which be occupied a building adjoining on the same lot until his death In 1858 Drs. Edwards and Hedges started a store in the same room which had been occupied by Kirker, and in April, 1862, sold out to S. Sprague.
C. V. Arrick commenced selling drugs at the southeast corner of Center and East Streets, and afterward removed to the Buckeye Block. In 1882 he sold to Dr. John Ewing. The latter, in partnership with Dr. T. J. Bingham, now carries on the Same business in a commodious store in the Stanberry Building. Of course the drugs were the legal variety at a pharmacy.
The United Paranormal Project has also found that there were other merchants on the NW Corner of the Square. The was no reference to a Brewster Hotel ever being in McConnelsville or Morgan County, Ohio in any history book, newspaper, magazine or any other media. There was a Brewster Store, however it was located just East of the Courthouse and Jail. We have been searching and researching this matter since 2008 and have put hundreds of hours into finding out what was really on the lot prior to the Opera House that burned down. Carla Christy, Research Manager for UPP began an exhaustive search in mid-2011 for any information regarding the Brewster family who owned and operated the Brewster Store. With the help of Eric Glosser, Director of UPP, who stumbled across an obscure story in an online historical recounting of the night McConnelsville burned, the actual story of the “burn district” was finally resolved. The Brewster “dwelling house” (which took in “boarders”) located on the NW corner of the square lot #32 was where the fire on May 5, 1879 started in a faulty flue. The Morgan County Herald and the Morgan County Democrat newspaper articles reporting on the fire are both reprinted in their entirety below. It is believed that the transactions to acquire the lots where the Twin City Opera House and McConnelsville Town Hall were eventually built involved trading a surviving female descendant from the Brewster family her lot #32, where the Brewster Dwelling House previously stood, for the adjoining lot #33.
Morgan County Herald & Democrat Newspapers
Morgan County Democrat McConnelsville, Ohio 1889
5-17-1889, “Council voted to purchase the Robertson Corner of the Public Square. If it could not be purchased at a fair price, the committee recommended initiating proceedings in condemnation.”
5-24-1889: “…necessary legal steps to condemn enough of the ‘burned district’ for a town hall…will be taken at once.”
7-5-1889: “Council consummated the purchase of the Robertson corner last Saturday (6-28) paying $4000. Council traded surplus to E.M. Stanbery for his lots immediately to the north. Stanbery sold them to Miss Maggie Henderson who will tear them down.”
On 8-2-1889 it was reported that the council had employed H.C. Lindsay to prepare plans for the new town hall and opera house.