THE NIGHT THE OPERA HOUSE BURNED DOWN
Historical Report #11
Lewiston’s Opera House, pictured at left, had been packed with people dancing on that Christmas night in 1930, its walls thrumming with the beat of old favorites like the Tucker Waltz and “Have You Seen my New Shoes?” The walls were framed with wood, and covered with more wood – the type of channel lap siding found all over the valley in those days. A long building, it stood on the east side of Lewiston’s South Main near where the Community Building is now, and had two dressing room wings on the east end at either side of the stage. Meeting places like the opera house had double-hung windows in those days, and they were all alight. And festive, since it was Christmas.
The opera house was built in 1884 and, like much of the construction done at that time, it had never been insulated. So during a Cache Valley winter it took a good bit of furnace power to warm the place up, and on that particular winter night, it was 30 degrees below zero. Never mind, between the heat generated by dancing and the roaring furnace under the stage, inside the building it was warm as toast.
But later on, as here and there the dancers called it a night, bundled up, and drifted out of the building toward home, did it appear to some that the big room they were leaving was considerably warmer than it should have been? Did Mr. Jorgenson, the janitor, feel uneasy as he stacked the benches and swept the floor and set the stage in order, and did anyone hanging around to help him while they gossiped together smell the overheated floorboards before the furnace ignited the stage?
Lewiston’s Edis Taggart can’t remember too much about that chaotic night. His memory of the fire itself transcended, he said, the details. But he remembered running back to the opera house after hearing the explosive roar as the fire erupted, and seeing the flames that almost immediately shot up through the roof, engulfing the whole east end of the building. He remembered the confusion of people running, the shouts and clamor, the vain attempt to rescue even a stick of furniture while the place blazed like an inferno into the bitter cold of that winter night.
Hyde Park Amusement Hall, 1930s, built 1924, destroyed by fire, 1948
“It was a spectacular fire.” recalled Edis. “You can’t believe how fast that building went up.” No one was hurt, but by the time the county fire truck arrived from Logan, the opera house was a dead loss and a thick pall of smoke was spreading over the upper end of the valley. The best the firemen could do was let it finish burning while they protected Van Orden’s drugstore on the north and Hen’s Cafe on the south. “It turned out the fire never touched the drugstore,” adds Edis, “though it did singe the back of Hen’s Cafe.”
Florence Allen, speaking to me last week from her home in Cove, remembered the fire well. “It was a sad day,” she said, “when that opera house burned down.” She recalled the dances she attended there through the mid 1920s, describing the origin of the annual “Sugar Tramps Ball.” It had been, she said, an annual celebration hosted by the Lewiston Sugar Factory management at the end of the fall sugar beet campaign.
“We always had live music, you know, at all the dances,” she said. “Beautiful waltzes. Not everyone came to dance; some just sat along the side to listen and watch.” She recalled especially Joe and John Lowe, twins who played the violin, with Joe’s daughter playing the piano. She recalled the “lively, perky music” of the Mendon orchestra, too. “We had a lot of musicians in the valley,” Edis added. “We could always find enough players, if only a violinist or two, to play for a dance.”
But the opera house had not been used for dancing only, as both Edis and Florence pointed out. The building held all types of socials, choral productions, and stage productions by both local amateur groups and traveling companies from the East Coast and California. In the photo included at the beginning of this report, Lewiston’s opera house marquee is advertising one of these traveling theatrical companies, the Columbia Players, featuring one F. W. Jackson and his leading lady, Miss Ora. In fact, the turn of the century right up to the beginning of World War II turned out to be the heyday of traveling performers in America.
After the Civil War, railroad construction that had been stymied by armed conflict from 1861 to 1865 was resumed at the end of hostilities with a vengeance. The resulting union of East and West at Promontory Point in 1869 occurred an astonishingly short four years later. As we know, it turned out to be a lifeline of goods and services for the previously isolated West and mid West, but it also prepared the way for theatrical companies from both coasts to reach intermountain and plains communities that had until then depended upon themselves for entertainment. In order to attract this type of entertainment, opera houses were built in rural communities all over the country. And though, when asked, Edis couldn’t remember any visiting production he saw at Lewiston’s opera house as anything less than excellent, not every community appeared to be that fortunate.
For instance, one jaded critic groused in an 1897 Atlantic Monthly column, "Doubtless there are worse theatrical companies than those that visit Kansas, but no one has ever described them." The problem was that these companies, scattering like buckshot into the nether reaches of America during this period, were welcomed with open arms by their undiscriminating audiences – audiences who were desperate for something, anything, besides their own homegrown fare. In fact, there grew up a demand for entertainment so fierce and so insistent that the booking agencies in charge of shuttling these companies about would accept just about anything to fill up the ranks. The result was an uneveness in quality difficult to imagine until ... well ... the emergence perhaps of commercial television.
Since World War I, however, increasingly convenient travel and the steady growth and improvement of communication and the entertainment media nearly finished off the nineteenth and early twentieth century brand of touring companies. By the end of World War II they were out of business. Ah, but meanwhile, the majority of the country’s opera houses had been enthusiastically retrofitted for the movies.
In Lewiston’s opera house the audience sat on benches on top of a bleacher-like arrangement involving scaffolding and planks, with the back seats raised something over four feet high. This arrangement was put up, taken down, and stored away for every event involving the stage. In the case of the movies, the chore was undertaken three times a week. Afton Hogan, a seventh grader at the time, played the piano as accompaniment to these movies because the Talkies, you see, hadn’t yet come on the scene. “Afton was very good,” Edis said. “For one dollar, she played for three hours.” Along with the featured movie, incidentally, was a many-part serial that ran from week to week, among which was an adventure actually called, “The Perils of Pauline.” For those of you unfamiliar with this melodrama, “The Perils of Pauline” is one of the earliest film melodramas in which the heroine is tied to the railroad tracks by the villain, a fate which forever after plagued film heroines of that particular art form until it went out of style. It must have kept Afton’s fingers pretty busy on the keys.
After the opera house burned down – and a surprising number of opera houses across the country did burn down – Lewiston was minus a community home. The LDS church house across the street was not equipped then for social and cultural activities as similar church houses are today, and an appropriate building that was also empty in 1930 was nowhere to be found. The town, though despondent over the loss, coped. Plays were put on under tents during good weather. And some functions were held in the second floor of the drugstore complex, known as the Commercial Building. But until 1935, when the present Community Building was erected with the help of federal funds, most social functions were held at the Sugar Factory hotel, a building that stood at that time on 800 East..
Sugar Factory Hotel, early 1900s - the hotel no longer exists
Just as these early community centers throughout the nation encouraged a camaraderie among townspeople that we might find lacking today, so also did Lewiston’s opera house. Community centers adapted for movie viewing then were not like the dark, womb-like, intensely private surroundings of movie houses today in which it’s so easy to come and go without a word to fellow audience members. Townspeople in these makeshift movie houses were still mixing together as groups. Moreover, socials, reunions, dances, and bees were still being indulged in then, for what else had people to rely on for entertainment but each other? Plan a party or a dance, or book a traveling musical in the late 1800s and early 1900s and the hall would wind up stuffed to the gills.
There were families who owned a phonograph or a radio in small towns by the thirties and forties, but these forms of personal entertainment were still relatively rare. Today, however, even the poorest families can tune into the world through at least one TV and middle class families often have two or three. Radios? We see children of eight walking around today with radios plugged into their ears. And why bother to dress up in 1997 after a hectic day to go out to see a movie when in the era of cable television we can enjoy watching a new release while comfortably stretched out in bed? And then, there’s Masterpiece Theater. What could more surely doom to failure the attempt to get a townful of people out to an amateur theatrical performance than Masterpiece Theater?
On the one hand, today’s technological advances has given us more opportunity than the railroad ever gave our foreparents to chose the very best in entertainment. But nothing ever comes without a price, and in this case the close community participation experienced in the years between pioneer settlement and the end of World War II appears to have vanished. It appears to have gone up in smoke with so many of the opera houses that had once dotted America’s hinterland--as did the Thatcher Opera House, pictured at right, stuffed to the gills in the 1890s, destroyed by fire in 1912.
Photo of Lewiston
Opera House, winter, 1912, Lewiston Scrap Book - second man from
left is the manager, Carl Stoddard
Photo of Cactus Club Opera House, 1916, Newhouse, now Murray, Utah - the building no longer exists, courtesy USU Special Collections
Photo of Hyde Park Amusement Hall 1930s courtesy of USU Special Collections
Photo of Thatcher Opera House, courtesy USU Special Collections
Photo of Sugar Factory Hotel on Sugar Factory land, early 1900s, Edis Taggart collection