The History of the Opera House Theater

Grand Opening
Live Theater


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.

Political battling        Back to Top

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.”

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 was contained.

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. 

 Construction        Back to Top

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.

 Grand Opening        Back to Top

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. 

 Live performances        Back to Top

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. 

 Movies           Back to Top

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.

The 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. 

And, 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 paranormal 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.