HISTORY OF WATERVILLE OPERA HOUSE
Norman R. Cowen
Note: This article was taken from page 33 of the Willett scrapbook.
I presume the article was written in 1959 and can be found in the
archives of the Waterville Times. RFB.
For many years Putnam Hall (now Waterville Knitting Mills, Inc. Mill#1) served as a public hall and Waterville’s Opera House.
Early in February, 1879, Putnam Hall was sold to E. W. Buell, to become Buell’s Boot and Shoe Factory.
Waterville was without a Hall for entertainments.
At one of the social gatherings of the Waterville Lyceum held at the Brunswick Hotel in January, 1880, Dr. Claude Wilson suggested that a committee be appointed to discuss action to be taken to provide Waterville with a public hall. The suggestion was received with enthusiasm. It was the unanimous opinion of all present that Waterville must have an Opera House and a good one. A committee consistting of W. B. Goodwin, Dr. Claude Wilson, M. P. Cady, A. R. Eastmean and W. B. Candee were selected to investigate. It was estimated that $15,000 would be sufficient to secure a public hall. A number of enterprising citizens in fifteen days subscribed the require amount but as is often the case, the cost was underestimated and more money was required to comlete the undertaking. The articles of incorporation of The Waterville Opera House Company Limited was filed with the County Clerk in April, 1880. The company continued to oerate for fifty years.
On the site chosen for the new Opera House was the American Hotel livery and hotel barns which were purchased of Mr. A. Young and Son, proprietors of the hotel.
On May 20, 1880, Mr. Garvey and John St. John with a force of fifteen men, five wagons and four teams started preparing the ground for the new Opera House. The structure to be of brick two stories high, the first story was originally composed of four stores fronting on White Street and extending through to Main Street. The Opera House entrances on both Main and White Street. From the Main Street entrance at the head of an easy flight of stairs was the box office, from there through a large corridor to the auditorium with a seating capacity of 800 to 900 people. The stage opening was 20 by 26 feet, the depth of the stage was 25 feet, with a gentle incline toward the audience. The stage was high enough to enable all to have a good view of the performance. In the back of the stage was a green room, a property room and four dressing rooms. A means of communication to the American Hotel was built for the benefit of performers and others whose duties called them to the rear of the house between the acts, by building an Iron Covered Bridge, connecting the Green Room with the American Hotel. The Ornamental and servicable bridge was built by H. D. Babcock of Leonardsville, N. Y. for the Opera House Company. After serving its purpose for three quarters of a century the bridge became unstable and had to be taken down.
The scenery for the stage was produced under the personal supervision of Scenic Artist McKenzie, which consisted of thirteen sketches and combinations. All views painted on flats and the scenes ran in four grooves to show a Palace, Garden, Rocky Pass, Landscape, Woods, Center Door, Fancy Chamber, A Two Door ditto, Kitchen, Plain room, Prison, Street Scene and a Horizon or Ocean View, each of which had a full set of wings to match the front.
The grand opening was held December 16, 1880. A special train of three coaches came from Utica, the Ladies and Gentlemen were conveyed to the Opera House or Hotels free of expense, dinner was served at th e American Hotel by proprietors A. Young & Son, followed by a concert of the Old Utica Band orchestra. There was an address by Mr. Horace P. Bigelow and a poem by School Principal G. R. Cutting. Following the general exercises a grand Ball was held. The concert and ball was a full dress affair. The opening was a great success and the special train returned to Utica in the late hours of the next morning.
The following Saturday, December 18, 1880, The Wilkinsons presented Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with Lillie Wilkinson as the greatest “Living Topsy” and Little Winnie Shannon as “Eva”. On Monday, December 20, 1880, East Lynne was presented. Reserved seats were on sale at W. J. Bissell & Sons store.
Many of Waterville’s older citizens can now reminisce on the many pleasant times enjoyed at the old opera House, remember the home Talent Plays and Minstreal Shows with the names, Terry, Westcott, Norton, Pugh, Puckey, Berrill, Bissell and many more.
The annual Firemen’s Ball with long hop picking tables laden with food of all kinds featuring milk pans of scalloped oysters.
Bordens annual dance and ball. It was here (the only place) the Waterville high School practiced and played their Basketball games.
West from the Main Street entrance, on the first floor has been the home Office of the Waterville Times and Hop Reporter for many years, editors have been Yale, Hawkins, Terry, George Westcott. To the west on Main Riley Williams Block had a fancy drygoods store, next on west H. R. Thomas had a grocery store, on the north west corner was Conger’s Hop Office, on the second floor north west, Leonard Quillman once had a Barber Shop. On the first floor southwest corner, Charles Bacon sold fancy wagons and sleighs.
The Opera House (1959) is now owned by Clifford J. McLaughlin under the management of his son, Spencer J. McLaughlin, now known as the Strand Theatre. West of the Main Street entrance is the Main Office and Print Shop of the Waterville Times and Hop Reporter published and edited by Mrs. Emily P. Westcott. To the west on Main St. Riley Williams block is now owned by Stephen Congelo now a Flat and Restaurant. the H. R. Thomas Grocery store, in the Mrs. Eunice Wright block first floor is now the Waterville Hardware, Inc. with an apartment on the second floor”
To illustrate then laborious work of building in the “Good Old Days” and the progress made since then, I quote, “Joseph Lavel, a loborer on the Opera House building, whose duty it was to carry or wheel bricks from the road to the walls of the second story. He had to load the brick into a wheelbarrow, wheel them into the building, wet them and then convey the load to the masons where he unloaded them. From actual count and measurements taken by disinterested parties, he wheeled 150 loads up during the ten hours of his days work. Each load a distance of 190 feet making the distance of 360 feet each trip, this aggregates during the day ten miles and six hundred feet traveled, half the distance wheeling a load of 60 brick or 240 pounds up a very steep incline.
As before stated, the site chosen for the Opera House was the American Hotel livery and hotel barns which were purchased of Mr. A. Young & Son. Mr. Young then purchased the Garvey property on the south side of White Street, a tenement house and blacksmith shsop were replaced by the hotel barns, several points were gained by removing the barns as greater security from fire, the unpleaasant odor and noise that were necessary accompaniments of livery barns had been taken away from the American Hotel. For many years this property was used as a boarding and livery stable, later known as the White St. Garage.. On May 1, 1959 this building containing 39 sq. rods also portion of farm land south of the building was transfered by Mr. Edward S. Barton and Mrs. Barton to the Village of Waterville as a gift.