It has been nearly 130 years since the following announcement appeared on the front page of the Xenia Gazette dated December 31, 1889. “The opera house at Jamestown will be opened this evening December 31st by the Blanche Slader Comedy Company. The opera house is one of the prettiest in the county. A number of young people from this city will go up this evening to attend the opening.”
During the later part of the 19th century, opera houses were a mainstay in a community. I’m not sure why they were called “opera houses,” rarely was an operatic presentation made, but it apparently was a generic name for a local theater.
After rail transportation became popular, traveling shows were booked into the opera house. This gave the local residents an opportunity to see many wonderful plays and other presentations which might have been available only by traveling to major cities.
The entire troop would arrive by train along with the scenery necessary for that particular presentation. Often Shakespearean actors would “walk the boards” at the local opera house.
Plays were varied in content but were presented for a wide variety of audiences. Serious plays such as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” or musical presentations and comedies were often shown on the stage.
Construction on the brick, multi-story opera house in Jamestown began June 12, 1889. Obviously, the work proceeded at a rapid pace because the building was open for the first performance in only a few months.
The village had sustained a major “cyclone” in 1884 with the loss of many buildings and homes.
After so many buildings had been destroyed, there was no adequate place for large meetings so an issue was proposed in the March 1889 election to allow the sum of $15,000 toward the building of such a structure. The voters approved and a lot at the corner of North Limestone and East Xenia Street was purchased for the sum of $1,600.
The winning bid for the construction was $11,464. The building was designed in what has been described as Late Victorian/Romanesque style.
As was typical of most opera houses, the main floor was devoted to city offices, the mayor, police, library, post office and other civic needs occupied the main floor while the theater was on an upper level. As space permitted on the ground floor there were also some retail businesses.
For many years, this was the place for plays, commencements, civic meetings and much more, but as other facilities were built, the need for an opera house diminished and the troops which had traveled across the country from town to town were no more. The last use of the opera house was for commencement of 1937 graduates. After that, the opera house was closed, though the main floor was in use until 1997 when the city and township offices moved to another location.
There was some speculation about razing the fine old building. A group of concerned citizens decided the structure was important enough to the community to save it, and so the work of restoration began. Many fund-raising events were held and donations were made to help the restoration
From the roof down, the building was restored through the dedication and hard work of many volunteers along with the financial help of community members. The structure was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.
Some of the more interesting memorabilia associated with the opera house are the many signatures which appeared on the wall; some of which have been preserved.
Names of students long ago with their graduation dates, drawings of deer, ducks and even a girl graced the walls.
Phrases such as “Do not come this way” or “The peoples favorite,” “To all peoples this is a good show,” “Was fined for smoking in opera house,” “Zorro was here,” “Say your prayers while you are still alive” have graced the walls.
Some of the performers signed the walls when they appeared on stage. The Smith sisters placed their name on the wall on January 11, 1896.
The Smith Sisters might have been the most beloved group to sing in the opera house. During the 1890’s the six sisters began their national tour at Jamestown and finished there as well. The sisters grew up in Jamestown, and performed in all 48 states. It was said that “Throughout the land there is no family so generally talented as the Smith Sisters.”
The ladies received $100 for each of their performances and estimated that they had performed 1,700 times on stages throughout the country listed as The Ariel Ladies Septet.
After about ten years, five of the young ladies married and so the public performances ceased – for forty years.
In 1948, the ladies were all widowed and living in Columbus. The local radio station heard about them and invited them to sing once more on the radio. They lined up as they had when they were younger. The ladies by this time were 76, 82, 74, 78, 84 and79 years of age. It was said that their voices were just as sweet as they had been so many years before. Folks in Greene County listened with fascination to the radio as they remembered the singers from many years ago. The ladies planned to go to New York to perform later that year, but the trip was not made.
The Jamestown Opera House continues to provide a variety of entertainments in the beautifully restored building.
Joan Baxter is a local resident and long-time historical columnist.