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
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
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
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.”
In May of 1879, a fire described as one of the most
destructive to ever occur in McConnelsville started in the kitchen flue in the
home of Seth Brewster. Brewster was a tombstone cutter, who lived in a brick
house on the village square. Without an organized fire department, the fire
quickly spread through the adjacent row of wooden shop buildings. Shifting winds
spread the fire quickly through much of a fourth of the block before the fire
For ten years the burned district lay in ruin, until 1889
when the town council finally 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
design principles 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 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” will 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 borrowed the owl from its ancestral "Whig"
party, 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
one of the
first buildings 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 they were designed
by the architect, Mr. Lindsay.
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 "Vitaphone" 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.
Opera House Theater’s auditorium was dedicated “Birch Hall,” in honor and memory
of MacDonald Birch, Master 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.
what would a one-hundred-twenty-year old theater be without its
resident spirits? At
the Opera House, stories have persisted for over four decades about its
apparitions. And for the past several years, groups of
investigators have spent countless nights in the Opera House, attempting to
capture definitive evidence that something or someone from the Opera House's
past is still keeping an eye on it.