History of Old Opera House Today a Mass of Ruins Dates Back to '73

(Editor's Note: The Time-Union is indebted to local historian George Nye for the following history of the old Opera House.)

Warsaw lost a landmark last night when the Moose Lodge building burned to the ground. Constructed as the town's Opera House nearly a century ago, the three-story, all-brick edifice was a magnificent structure in its day.

Indiana's most noted poet, James Whitcomb Riley danced with the local belles in its huge ballroom. It was the city's proud show palace for more than 40 years. It served the populace as a popular entertainment center.

Construction of the half-block long building, occupied a quarter-block area, was begun in 1873 as a public hall. Many noted political leaders and candidates spoke to the people in its halls during the late 1800's. The building was first occupied in the summer of '74.

Six men were credited with the architectural feat of designing the Opera House. They were John Runyan, Alford Ruch, Amos Kist, Tom Woods, Andy Bair and Hi Berst, all from pioneer families of the area.

First Public Hall
It was the city's first public hall of any consequence. For more than four decades it was in constant use for social entertainment and civic activities. The top professional entertaining talent of the day was booked at the Opera House. It had a seating capacity for 2,000 persons, including gallery seats, which according to County Historian George Nye, were generally filled by youngsters.

Political rallies and conventions at the turn of the century made heavy use of its hall. Noted speakers from over the land came here to address the people.

The ornate structure was built at a cost of $45,000. A plank sidewalk, cobblestone gutters and dirt street then fronted the building. Nevertheless, a near century ago it was a sight to behold. The first floor, or street level, was originally designed for use by retail establishments. Such space has been utilized since for this purpose for its entire 93-year old history.

At this time, a decorative and expansive stairway at the building's east end led to a second floor auditorium with its huge stage suitable for all types of entertainment. In recent years the stairway was diminished in width, the resulting remodeling making it possible to add another street level store to the first floor.

Ticket Booth
At the top of the steps leading to the second floor was located a ticket booth. To the north was located the spacious entranceway to both the big hall and to the gallery. The floor in the main auditorium sloped to the west. Its state was large. A huge curtain screened it. On this curtain were painted advertisements of many business houses of that day.

High school commencement exercises were held here. It also was a habitat for many political caucuses. About 1904 the noted Albert J. Beveridge spoke there during the Teddy Roosevelt campaign. Teddy later broke with the GOP and formed the Bull Moose party.

It was during the days before moving pictures and television. The Opera House was used mostly for shows. These would come for a week's stand, perhaps putting on a different show each evening. One of the most popular shows, then drawing the heaviest crowds, was "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Prior to such shows a big downtown parade, usually scheduled for about noontime, would be staged, led by a brass band in which slide trombones were most prominent. To lead the bloodhounds in the parade, some of the "Boys" of the town would be solicited and given tickets to the show for their services.

The bloodhounds would be followed by Uncle Tom and Little Eva in a carriage, followed by Marks, the lawyer, Simon Legree and others of the cast. It took some local talent, too, in the show to keep the "ice" floating on the "Ohio River," and to pull Little Eva up to "Heaven" in the grand finale.

Such businessmen as Charles Rigdon managed the Opera House in those days. A George Dufur was in charge of maintenance. In some of the local talent shows, the late Harry Nye played the role of "make-up man."

When movies began to entertain the populace at the Centennial Theatre (now the Boice Theatre) a block north on Center St., in 1917 interest of the community no longer centered so much on stage plays.

Minstrel Show
During those earlier days the local Elks Lodge (802) put on their minstrel show each year in the Opera House. It usually ran a two-night stand and was one of the social highlights of the year.

In later years, about 1915 through 1920, the hall was converted to a gymnasium and basketball court. Warsaw High School played its games in this hall at this period. County high school basketball tournaments were also played here.

It was during the early 1920s that the Moose Lodge purchased the building. What had been the large gallery was closed off to form a third floor. This area then was used primarily for storage space with the lodge using the second floor for its business and social activities.

A grocery store was among the first businesses to occupy a location in the Opera House block, as it then was known. And a grocery store has been in operation there almost constantly over the years.

As times change, so did the interests of the community. Vaudeville and stage plays, so popular in the mid and late 1900s, became less popular.

The building was originally named the "Athenum" but General Reub Williams, publisher and founder of The Northern Indianian, later to become The Warsaw Daily Times, suggested it be renamed the Warsaw Opera House. That became its name.

Contrast in Protection
At the time the Opera House was built (1873) city fire protection consisted of cisterns strategically placed about town. A horse cart was usually pulled by a "team" of volunteer firemen. Occasionally, a team of horses would pull the cart if hitching time was permitted. Water pumping had been modernized at this time. Steam engines were used to pump water from the cisterns. If a cistern was not close by a fire, a bucket brigade was formed by firemen and citizens at large.

Warsaw Opera House
View of Second Floor Auditorium & Stage
Picture from stereocard

Aftermath of fire on October 12, 1967

Warsaw Times-Union Friday, October 13, 1967

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