“Under the legal fiction of bonding the township and village for the purpose of building a town hall[,] the greater part of the structure was designed and built for a theater. Basically, it was a township undertaking, fully supported by the village. The dedicatory program was operatic, and forever afterwards until her recent demise, the whole structure, generally, was known as ‘The Opera House'” (Robert Walden Notebook, #A50).
As I sit here tonight typing, a steady rain is falling outside. It is a fitting sound by which to compose this post, as you will see. I wrote in my last entry about Wellington’s 1885 Town Hall. The building was designed to be the epicenter of civic life in the village, housing governmental functions, the fire department, the town jail facilities and the lending library. At some point in the 1890s, even the town clock migrated a few yards north from the bell tower of the Methodist Church; it had been unmaintained and consequently inaccurate for years, a fact decried in more than one Wellington Enterprise notice.
But the true jewel in the Town Hall’s crown was its performing arts space. The massive facility could seat over one thousand people and its opening in May, 1886 was one of the most exciting events in Wellington’s history. The organizers anticipated such high turnout that they publicly asked that the first night be reserved for residents of the town, with a second evening intended specifically for neighboring communities. Proceeds from the ticket sales were earmarked for expansion of the library.
The premiere performance was dazzling. The house was packed to capacity with “the beauty and elite of our little city” (Enterprise, 5-5-1886, pg. 4). Since the entire population at the time was only 1,800 people, more than half the village could have attended. The play was called An Unequal Match and starred internationally-known actress, Mademoiselle Rhea. Born in Belgium to French parents, Rhea was renowned for her exquisite costumes and heavily accented performances. When she died in 1899, The New York Times ran an obituary that observed in part, “Mlle. Rhea’s most pronounced successes were won in ‘the provinces,’ where she enjoyed a vogue that lasted for many years. Her French intonation, while it did not conform to established rules of elocution, was a source of attraction to many people, lending an added attractiveness in their eyes to her other foreign mannerisms” (5-22-1899).
The Enterprise agreed: “Mlle. Rhea’s accent was very pretty and could, for the most part, be quite readily understood, except where her delivery was rapid” (5-5-1886, pg. 4). Rhea was clearly considered a celebrity, and was escorted around town on Tuesday by Mayor Watson Wean and Charles Horr in a new barouche loaned by a local business. She took to the stage again that night, to star in a comedy called Frou Frou. The evening came off brilliantly, noted the paper, “notwithstanding the rain and the gloom.” What the editor omitted from his review, but was mentioned on the community notes page of the same edition, was what went wrong that second night.
“Quite a mishap occurred at the opera house, Tuesday evening. After the first scene had been acted the gas lights began to flicker and in about five minutes disappeared, leaving the room in total darkness for a short time. Messrs. Webster and Adams soon had a sufficient number of kerosene lamps on hand to allow the play to proceed. The supposed cause of the accident was that the drains from the cellar had not been properly attended to, and water filled the excavation made for the tank, shutting off the supply of gas” (Enterprise, 5-5-1886, pg. 5).
Robert Walden was in the audience on one of those nights, though it is unclear which one. Tickets for Opera House events were available through Erwin Adams’ drug store on the south side of Liberty Street, now called West Herrick Avenue. They were sold on a first-come, first-served basis, but the use of surrogates to purchase tickets was allowed. Young Walden–he would have been eighteen in 1886–was apparently paid by Mayor Wean to buy his tickets to the show, and with the dollar he earned, purchased his own ticket.
Walden wrote at length about the Opera House, but appears to have confused some of the information. “Strangely, no one seems to remember the calendar date of the opening; only the fact that it was in early spring and that the building was completed in 1885, because those figures are carved in stone near the front entrance” (Notebook, #A50). It is very odd that Walden should not have thought to check the Enterprise for the date of the opening, as he was briefly editor of the newspaper and other columns suggest that he had copies of at least some issues on hand as he composed. And while construction of the Town Hall began in July of 1885, it was dedicated and opened in May, 1886.
Walden also switched the nights of each performance in his memory. He recalled attending Frou Frou, a portion of which was sung in French, on the first evening, but wrote that he would have preferred to see An Unequal Match performed entirely in English on the second night. I personally think he attended the “out-of-towners” show, but as years passed misremembered that he had been present on Opening Night. The fact that he also claimed to experience the driving rain and lights going out–which happened Tuesday–may confirm this theory. “The house was sold out for each performance. On the opening night it had rained so long and hard and the mud was so deep and tenacious that carriage after carriage had to be pried out with long wooden bars before they could proceed and discharge their fashionably dressed passengers. In the midst of the performance all of the lights went out because water had flooded the basement. After some delay lanterns were procured and the opera was continued. If you can find an account of it or talk with anyone who was there you will be assured that the dedicatorial programs were great musical and social successes. That is what everyone said at the time” (#A50).
The Opera House continued to serve as a center of public entertainment for decades. It hosted political rallies, minstrel shows, even competitions. Many people we have already met were involved in productions: Charles Horr organized the opening celebrations described here; George Couch, of the Couch Cabinet Factory, was overall manager of the operation for years; the artistic Laura Tissot and William Sawtell both assisted with “stage arrangements and decorations,” what we would today call “set design.”
Alas, television came into the American home and gradually locals began to consider the Opera House quaint, then obsolete. By the mid-twentieth century, the formerly elegant space was converted into a one-story gymnasium, a function it still serves today. Ironically, Wellington is currently engaged in a $2.5 million fundraising campaign to build a community auditorium. The proposed facility would serve all the same functions the Opera House was once used to perform, but would seat only six hundred. As a preservationist, it pains me to think of what we have lost. But in life, as in theater, the show must go on.