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Our Opera House, So Called
(early 1900s)


 

How It Was In Hartford
Small Town Life in Mid-America 1900-1920
Willis F. Dunbar - 1968

 

Our Opera House, So-Called
Chapter 6
(click here for location on Hartford map)
 

Like every other small town of any size, Hartford had a hall known as the opera house. This was a misnomer, for I doubt that anything faintly resembling opera was ever performed on its stage. In fact, it was years later before I had any idea what an opera was, and I am sure most Hartfordites were no better informed. Mostly these opera houses were used for theatrical performances of one sort or another, though, as will become evident, they also served other purposes. They were not called theaters because so many of the church people were of the opinion that theaters were wicked. Besides, "opera house" sounded rather more grand.

"Old Gene" and His Academy of Music

Our opera house was operated by an aged gentleman named Cenius Engle, usually called "Old Cene." Curiously enough, he was quite religious. He had been around for years, was a leading member of the Methodist Church in the early days, and had served as Sunday school superintendent for a long time. He built several of the structures in the town's business section, and fitted up the second floor of one of these as an opera house. Perhaps he thought that even the name "opera house" might have sinful overtones, because he officially called it the Academy of Music. This is the way the local newspaper always referred to it, but everyone in the town simply called it the opera house. Before the day of high school auditoriums movie houses, it served the community's needs for a meeting place as well as for shows of all sorts.

The Academy of Music was a hall capable of seating perhaps three hundred people. There were three types of seats. Up front there were the "reserved seats," with arms and with bottoms that folded up. Back of them were several rows of hard, straight chairs. In the rear were bleachers, some three or four tiers of them. The stage had a proscenium arch of sorts and a curtain which was pulled up and let down by hand with ropes. In the center of the curtain was a kind of rustic scene, while around the edges were advertisements for local stores and professional people. For this kind of publicity, Old Cene collected quite a revenue. Having a space on the curtain was a kind of status symbol. One space bore the legend: "W. H. Dunbar. Fresh Meat, Fish, and Game." The ones for the doctors would simply have the physician's name with an "M.D." at the end, and sometimes his office hours. The audience was. forced to gaze at this ghastly mlange before every performance and at intermissions. The curtain never seemed to work right. It would often get stuck either coming up or going down, to the embarrassment of performers and the amusement of the audience. This gave the doings, no matter how serious they were supposed to be, a delightfully informal air.

On each side of the stage were "dressing rooms," which were always dirty and ill kept. There were two or three backdrops, also on curtains, which rolled up and down: one, a rustic scene, one a "drawing room," and the other (as I recall it) a balcony scene. That about sums up the backstage equipment. Wide steps led up to the hall from Main Street, and another stairway led down to the back alley. These were the only means of ingress and egress until finally the fire inspectors got after Old Cene and compelled him to install a fire escape on the outside of the building. It was constructed of wood, and probably if there ever had been a fire it would have burned before anyone could have used it. The ticket office was located at the head of the main stairs, and there Old Cene officiated on most occasions, hungrily collecting the dimes and quarters of the customers. To a small boy he appeared very old. He wore a long, white beard and he used to walk around the hall a good deal during performances for one reason or another. One of his greatest annoyances were the small boys who occupied the bleachers and who were always making life miserable for him. During the show he would frequently try to quiet them down, but his endeavors along this line were so pitifully ineffective that the poor old fellow became something of a joke.

All sorts of attractions played at the opera house. I would guess that they may have averaged two or more per week. It was the scene of high school baccalaureate and commencement exercises for years when the school had no auditorium. Farmers institutes were held there, usually during the winter. There also were teachers institutes. Home-talent plays and minstrel shows were often staged there. At one time they even cleared out the seats and had basketball games in the opera house. Dances, however, were held at the town hall. Touring theatrical companies came to play at the opera house in Hartford very frequently when I was a lad. Most of them were there for a one-night stand, but stock companies often offered a different play each night for a week. The one-nighters were apt to put on a more ambitious performance, and prices of admission were higher. As I recall it, the standard price for admission was thirty-five to fifty cents for general admission and fifty to seventy-five cents for reserved seats, with children admitted for considerably less.

Mothers, seeking a little surcease from household duties, would come and bring their children, even small infants. Baby-sitters were unknown, unless there happened to be a maiden aunt or a grandmother who was willing to stay home and watch the kids. The squalling of babies was an inevitable accompaniment of a performance of any sort in the opera house. If the youngster was not quieted fairly soon, people would turn around in their seats and stare; and if enough stared, the mother or father got up and took the offender elsewhere. It must have been a trial for the actors, for it seemed as if the infants in attendance would cut loose just at the climax of a play or a speech. I think performers in those days were accustomed to such interruptions, but it must have been irritating.

If a child, or an adult for that matter, had a call of nature during the evening, it was too bad. As I remember it, there was some sort of indoor privy for women, but none for men. The latter had no choice but to go down the back stairs and relieve themselves in the dark alley back of the hall. Old Cene posted someone, I believe, at the back door to be sure no one got in that way without paying admission.

Curtain at 8:15

The play I remember best at the old opera house was a performance of The Count of Monte Cristo, perhaps the most noted of Alexander Dumas' prolific productions. It was thriller-diller all right. Although the scenic effects and stage settings at the opera house were primitive, to say the least, the company that performed that play must have had quite a set of props. I can remember the semi-darkened stage with a simulated seascape. Something remotely resembling waves was produced by stagehands pulling back and forth boards on which pieces of canvas painted blue were attached. The Count of Monte Cristo was discerned by the audience in the middle of this contrivance madly battling for his life. I got so excited by the whole thing that I didn't sleep a wink all night. The only other experience that affected me this way was a revival meeting at the tabernacle, about which more anon.

The stock companies went in for comedies and melodramas. All these productions by the stock companies had a character called a "Toby." A Toby was a country bumpkin, full of fun, outrageously costumed, and apparently dull witted. The plot gravitated around the activities of dignified persons, usually British aristocrats or rich folks from the city, who made sport of the Toby but in the end were invariably outwitted by him. The melodramas, like "Lena Rivers," had gloriously evil villains who had black mustaches and were the prototype of a Southern slave-driver. The hero of the play was, of course, clean-cut and strong; the leading lady had to be blonde and exceedingly fragile. Actually the customers enjoyed the character actors,. especially the Toby, more than they did the leads, for they provided the comic relief when things got too weepy. Between acts, the manager of the stock company would appear in front of the curtain to announce the next night's play, and later, to tell what the schedule was for the remainder of the week. Also between acts, members of the cast did songs and dance routines to keep the customers amused. People came night after night to see these shows. Generally some sort of prize was awarded the last night. The actors seemed like old friends and it was not unusual for a round of applause to greet a popular member of the cast, especially the Toby, when he made his first appearance on the stage. Quite often, the actors boarded and slept in private homes while they were in the village.

A number of these stock companies played at the opera house for a week each season. They came back year after year. The management and cast remained quite stable and became well known in the town. One such group was called the Keyes Stock Company. The best known and longest-lived was the Hunt Stock Company, which had its headquarters in the little town of Vermontville and continued to operate as late as the 1940's. This company, like most of the others, went "under canvas" as soon as spring came. From April into October they would tour a rather limited area, playing a week in each place. The company owned its tent, seats, stage, and other equipment, including costumes and scenery.

Another type of attraction that played either at the opera house or under canvas was the medicine show. I cannot recall that any of these outfits traveled by wagon, as frequently depicted nowadays on television westerns. Admission, whether to the tent show or to the opera house, was minimal- something like a dime for adults and a nickel for children. The outfit did not make its money by admission fees. The performances varied in quality, some of them being pretty terrible even to the uncultivated tastes of the Hartfordites of my era. They ran to sleight of-hand, comedy routines, tap or soft-shoe dancing, and singing. In between the acts came the pitch for the medicine. The hawker was an artist in his line, starting with tales of wondrous cures effected by the concoction he was about to offer for sale.  The dope was always offered at half the

 



On the Opera House stage


regular price, though exactly why Hartfordites got this break was not made clear.  Following the pitch, salesmen (who doubled as performers) passed among the audience selling the medicine, which was money-back guaranteed to cure just about any ailment you happened to have. The stuff was always purveyed in a fluid state and was known to have a high alcoholic content. Since Hartford was dry, the best customers were local topers who were suffering only from thirst. If sales lagged, the pitchman would try again, usually giving away a few bottles to get things started.

Another kind of performance at the opera house was the home-talent play, generally put on by some lodge to raise money for whatever lodges needed money for. Quite often, the actors were coached by a touring professional, hired to spend a couple of weeks in the .village for this purpose. Home-talent minstrel shows were especially popular, and there were also traveling professional minstrel troupes. Minstrel shows, always following a standard routine, were heavily patronized. I can remember one minstrel show I was in, coached by a professional named Bert Reeves. I was an "end man," a blackface of course. In the center of the stage was a dignified character known as the "interlocutor," always dressed in formal clothes, who served as the fall guy for the jokes pulled by the end men and others "in the line," which sat facing the audience. Featured were solos, male quartets, tap dancing, and revelry of assorted kinds. The second act of a minstrel performance was always called the "Olio." The traveling minstrel companies appeared in a street parade just in advance of the performance. It was led by a small band, which was followed by high-stepping blackface characters, the interlocutor, and various performers. It was designed to lure patrons to the opera house.

The Tommers

Each season the opera house would be visited by at least one company of "Tommers." The "Tommers" were the troupes that specialized in the presentation of that old favorite, "Uncle Tom's Cabin." The perennial popularity of this show is truly amazing. People went to it year after year even though they had seen it many times before. The Tommers usually put on a street parade, too. Uncle Tom, Simon Legree,  and Little Eva were in evidence, of course, together


The Hartford Lady Minstrels performing
 

with the other well-known characters of the play, a blackfaced band, and inevitably a bunch of mangy curs that were billed as bloodhounds. The Tommers regarded themselves as belonging to a craft quite distinctive from that of ordinary actors. A professional once told me he was playing with a Tom outfit in 1929, just before the coming of sound films - which put the finishing touches on the demise of the Tommers.  It happened that their Simon Legree, who was addicted to heavy consumption of alcohol, imbibed some poisonous home brew and as a consequence was obviously going to be disabled for a time. The manager contacted several theatrical agencies in Chicago for a substitute, but learned that talent was very scarce that summer. The only man available turned out to be a Yiddish burlesque comedian, temporarily out of employment, and he was hurried to the town where the troupe was playing. That night members of the audience were startled to find that the Southern villain had somehow acquired a distinct Yiddish accent. Perhaps the Tommers pulled such large audiences because even the church people, who usually shunned theatricals, would go to a Tom show on the excuse that it was uplifting.

Still another type of attraction booked by Old Cene at the opera house were the mind-reading and hypnotic shows. These always created a sensation. I can vividly remember one such company which put on performances on. two successive nights. The first night, the hypnotist did his stuff with a girl who belonged to the cast, and she went out like a light. The next day they had her laid out on a slab in the window of Frank Myers' furniture store, and she lay there like a corpse all day. Everyone stopped to gape at her lying there. The next night she was transported to the opera house and the hypnotist brought her back to sensibility with no apparent ill effects. I recall, being a growing boy and fond of eating, how much I pitied this poor girl for having to go without sustenance for twenty-four hours.

The good Methodists in the town, even though Old Cene was one of their number, would not attend these opera-house theatricals, except the Tom shows. The Baptists were just about as strongly set against them. The Congregationalists were somewhat less strict, and the Catholics had no compunctions against the theater. But there was one type of attraction at the opera house which even the Protestant ministers attended. This was the lyceum course. Each winter a series of four or five attractions were booked and tickets were sold in advance for the series. As a rule, there would be two lectures and two musical performances. The latter might include groups of singers, small instrumental ensembles, or Swiss bell-ringers. The stress was on inspiration and culture. Thus the lyceum programs were not theatricals, and so the preachers and others who professed opposition to the lures of the stage could come. Since plays were the usual thing in the opera house, I can clearly recall how shocked I was every time a preacher would enter and take his seat for the lyceum program. It did not seem quite right, somehow.

Chautauqua!

This leads quite naturally to the chautauqua, for it, too, was patterned for appeal to church people. The idea originated at Chautauqua Lake in New York, and at first was a summer experience combining education and inspiration for Sunday school teachers. The annual summer assemblies quickly became extremely popular and were soon attended by many besides Sunday school teachers - people who felt, maybe, a little guilty about taking a summer vacation, and soothed their consciences by combining it with uplift and education. Other summer assemblies sprang up in various parts of the nation, including one at Bay View, Michigan, which had its origin in the 1870's. Then James Redpath got the idea of putting the chautauqua under canvas and taking it to towns and cities across the nation. By 1905, the traveling chautauqua had become a big thing in mid-America. There were not only several Redpath "circuits" but many others. The Redpath chautauqua played in the large towns and cities, but other circuits were organized for the small communities like Hartford. Ours was known as the Lincoln chautauqua. Far from being opposed to the chautauqua as they were to the theater, the church people were the prime promoters. Sometime during the winter, the chautauqua men, at least, since they were confused about whether it was literature, which was good, or theater, which was bad. One book about chautauqua is called Morally We Roll Along. This is an appropriate title, since it always retained just a bit of its Sunday school background.

The musical part of chautauqua consisted of a wide variety of instrumental and vocal ensembles. The prime attraction was a band, which I liked best. The chautauqua bands, of which there were scores, consisted of run-of-themill professional and semi-professional musicians. They were not large but they had colorful uniforms and impressive names. "Black Hussar" was a favorite. There were small orchestras, string ensembles, male quartets, bell-ringers, and soloists - somewhat the same fare as provided by the lyceum course. Some of these groups played classical and semi-classical music of the more familiar and less ambitious type. Favorites were Beethoven's "Minuet in G," Rachmaninoff's "Prelude in C-Sharp Minor," McDowell's "To a Wild Rose," and such. The bands and orchestras played the standard overtures, leaning heavily on the old favorites by von Suppe like "Poet and Peasant" and "Light Cavalry." Not a few musicians made a good living playing chautauqua in summer and the lyceum in winter. Since the lyceum required fewer musicians than the chautauqua, quite a large number of these chautauqua musicians were unemployed during the winter. In Kalamazoo, the city's first symphony orchestra was formed through the imp~tus of musicians who played the chautauqua circuits in summer. I think the first taste of classical or semi-classical music by many a small-towner of my boyhood was through the lyceum and chautauqua.

Our town was too small to afford the leading chautauqua lecturers like William Jennings Bryan and Russell Conwell, the latter famous for his "Acres of Diamonds" lecture which he delivered many hundreds of times to chautauqua audiences across the nation. But we would occasionally rate an ex-state governor, a congressman, or a college president. They always appeared in white suits in the afternoon, but were attired in more sedate garb for the big evening lecture. I heard a good many of these purveyors of information and inspiration, but I fail to remember anything they said. My impression is that they were powerfully inspirational, but I am not sure what they inspired. They did, I believe, set people thinking about the larger issues of the day. A number represented various phases of the Progressive Movement, which was in full swing at the time, some being little more than accomplished temperance lecturers of the old school. They discussed personal problems and how to meet them perhaps more often than they did public issues; the latter might involve political overtones, and that was to be avoided at all costs.

Farmers drove in from miles around to attend the chautauqua, bringing their families along. The stores usually closed in the afternoon during the program and also early in the evening to allow the proprietor and his helpers to attend. Chautauqua eventually was edged out by a variety of factors. The circuits began to have trouble during World War I; our chautauqua folded in 1918. Afterward the movie houses, the popularity of automobiling, and finally radio combined to spell the doom of chautauqua. It was really quite a thing while it lasted.

Sounds from a Horn

One of the great moments in our home came when my father bought a Victor Talking Machine. I think the term "Victrola," which later was used as a trade name by the firm that made the machine, had not yet come into use. Our machine played disk records, which ran 78 rpm, were heavy, cracked easily, and were recorded only on one side. Some people at the time had the Edison Phonographs, with cylinder records on which the man said before every selection, "Edison Record." Our phonograph had a big horn attached to it, and the sound emanated from this. Our records consisted of band music, sacred songs, and several comedy records. One of these was called "The Preacher and the Bear." The song told about a preacher being chased by a bear, who, after gaining a little, fell to his knees in prayer, the end of which was "Oh, Lawd, if You can't help me, for goodness sake don't You help that bear!" That line always evoked a belly laugh from my father and from the neighbors who came in to hear the phonograph played. The other humorous records were of a similar genre. I do not know how many phonographs there were in town, but my impression is they were rather popular. Radio did not come until the 1920's, after I had gone away to college.

Play at Hartford Michigan early 1900s
6-1-2007 - Photo submitted by Laurie Jacobs Warner.  I will write what my grandmother (Bertha Stowe McAlpine) wrote on the back of it.  The photo is from a play, again my grandma's words:

 "A Mrs. Nash from Fennville organized an elocution class (can't remember year) and she put on 'Much Ado About Nothing'.  Alice Townsend a relative of Conway girls, Nell Zuver, Ethel Anderson, Mrs. Nash, Marie Finley, (myself Hero) {Bertha Stowe McAlpine} Ethie Clover, Addie Humphrey, Fay Dunnington, McNitt girl, Mrs. C.H. Engle, Marcella Goodspeed, Mrs. Chamberlin and Allie Manley are out of the picture too bad. Our costumes came from Chicago. Isn't the background awful?"

This was obviously an all-girl production!  That's okay, I have a program I will fwd. to you that is from an all-boy play in which my grandfather, John Clair McAlpine, played a bridesmaid!
 

Webmaster Note:  The stage appears to be the same as in pictures above and also performed at The Opera House.


Information for this web site was gathered from personal interviews, newspaper articles, scrapbooks, personal photo albums, and other documented materials - many available to the public at the Hartford Public Library or Van Buren County Historical Museum.  Please report any typographical errors, updated information, or incorrectly stated information to the webmaster for correction.  Reprinting for personal and instructional purposes is permitted, however, unauthorized commercial reprinting of this information or unauthorized linking to photos-pictures on this site is strictly prohibited without written permission from the webmaster. 



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A Pictorial History of Hartford, Michigan
Emma Thornburg Sefcik,
Competent Secretarial Service
Copyright 2000 - All rights reserved.


Revised: March 20, 2014