Tri-Counties Genealogy & History by Joyce M. Tice
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Bradford County PA
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Roger Keagle's Complied History of Canton, Bradford County PA
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Lewis Opera House Destroyed by Fire
Famous Personages Appeared on Stage

The Lewis Building destroyed by fire in 1942, housed the "Lewis Opera House," which at the time of its erection in 1898 was one of the most beautiful and costly little opera houses in the state.

The contractor was H. H. Taylor, father of Floyd D. Taylor.  Slousman & Landis, of Chicago, equipped the house with its scenery which was as fine as is found in many large city theatres.

The capacity of the house was 545, and there was a main floor with boxes on the sides and also a balcony with loges.  The stage was 24 feet wide, 14 feet high and 28 feet deep.  From the gridiron to the floor of the stage was a distance of 40 feet.

The house opened on May 10, 1899 with "The Burglar," a four act drama by Augustus Thomas, founded on the famous sketch, "Editha's Burglar," under the direction of W. L. Buchanan.

The cast of characters included Albert Lang, Randolph Murry, Charles Drake, Ed. Hume. H. H. Horton, Dell Ellerson, Clara Langley, Hortense Dean, Lou Ripley and Little Doris.  The second attraction on May 23 was "Tennessee's Pardner."

The personnel of the house was as follows:  Manager-W. W. Whitman; ushers-John H. Whitman, head usher; Thomas Burk, parquet; Fred Walter, parquet; James Fox, balcony; Clyde Smith, balcony.

Orchestra-E. C. Saks, violin; Lee Rundell, flute; W. H. Qua, clarinet; F. E. Whitman, cornet; A. W. Fellows, trombone; F. M. Riggs, bass, E. E. Landon, piano; Robert Gilmore, drums.

Stage employees-Deville Tripp, stage manager; Earl Watts, master of properties; Austin Stull, gripman; B. J. Tripp, curtainman; S. Black, flyman; Horace Craven, electrician.

Miscellaneous-A. D. McCraney, police; T. M. Watts, police; Walter Smith, programmer; Harry L. Rogers, advertising agent; Whitman Bros., publishers of house program.

Such celebrities as Edwin Mayo in "Puddin' Head Wilson," Eleanor Mayo of "Princess Bonnie" fame, Planton G. Brounoff, pupil of Rubenstein and Rimsky-Korsakoff, Porter J. White, with his masterful portrayal of "Faust," and he Clara Turner Stock Company trod these boards.

There were many, no mean, amateur plays presented, such as "Esmeralda," "Charlie's Aunt," "Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch," and "Fi-Fi."

Among noted minstrel shows were High Henry, Culhan, Chase and Weston and Deraue Bros.  When High Henry showed here Byron Gleckner, a local boy, was flute and piccolo soloist, and it was through him that the show was brought here.

Keene and Francisco were noted magicians who delighted with their legerdemain.

Among noted lecturers were Emma B. Smith of Chicago, and a governor of one of the Carolinas.

The late George Bubb, who at one time was owner and manager of the Rialto picture house, brought such plays as the "Royal Slave" and "A Race for Life."

The house had three managers during its period of operation, namely: W. W. Whitman, L. L. Stone and Lee Greenleaf.

It was due to the fact that the theatre was located on the second floor and state inspection laws became to drastic for such locations that the theatre was closed in 1916.

There are undoubtedly many highlights of this lovely little theatre we have missed in this resume.  For such data as we have we are indebted to the president of the town council, George Doll, who for almost the entire time of the theatre's existence was in charge of the electrical switch board, and to George Bullock who furnished us the program of "The Burglar."
 

[Page 206]

Photo Captions:  The Lewis Building

The upper photo shows the building shortly after it was build.  The Farmers National Bank had not been built, and Lindley and Ronan occupies the space later taken for the post office.  Collins Furniture and Undertaking business was taken over by a grocery store.

 

The bottom photo shows the south side of Main Street as it appeared before fire destroyed most of these buildings.

[Page 200]

The Lewis Opera House of Canton

When the Lewis Opera House opened its doors to the public on May 10, 1899, it ushered in a golden era of Canton's history.  The Opera House was erected through the generosity of Mrs. Lemon Lewis as a memorial to her family, and was dedicated to the people of Canton that they might enjoy the newest and finest entertainment of the day.

Mrs. Lewis, a native of Washington, D.C., was in inveterate theatre-goer.  Her daughter, Flora Lewis, was also a serious student of the drama and at one time considered a stage career, but after her marriage to Louis Mills Marble, son of a prominent Washington family, her ambition for a professional career was abandoned.

Another factor that undoubtedly influenced Mrs. Lewis' philanthropic gesture was her friendship with two illustrious theatrical families, the Davenports and Mayos, who originally came to Canton as members of the summer colony at Minnequa Springs Hotel and subsequently established homes on the outskirts of the Borough.  "Davenport Villa," built by Edward Loomis Davenport and his actress wife, Fanny Vining, was headquarters for the family and their thespian friends between engagements.  After their retirement it became their permanent residence.  During the period which saw American dramatic art flower and reach its zenith, the name of Edward Loomis Davenport ranked among the great figures of the theatre, by many critics outranking even Booth and Drew.  Seven living children survived their father, five added luster to the family name with their own footlight careers, one daughter achieved success as a grand opera star, one was a non professional.  The deed of conveyance to the property acquired by the renowned actor as recorded in Bradford County, refers to the grantee as Edward. L. Davenport, Tragedian.  Mr. Davenport was obviously proud of his profession and the title was well deserved.

When these families settled in Canton, they brought distinction to the town that Chambers of Commerce today regard as manna from heaven.  They also gave our people their first taste of theatre done in the grand manner.  Mr. and Mrs. Davenport became part of the regular bill of fare at Minnequa Springs with their dramatic readings from Shakespearian plays; Frank Mayo produced "As You Like It" in the picturesque outdoor setting provided by the Minnequa woods.

It was also the custom of the Mayo family to open each season with a production at Citizens Hall, where all local entertainments were held prior to the building of the Opera House.  What a beautiful bit of local color to provide a small provincial town such as existed in rural America seventy and more years ago.  The customary entertainment for the average town of the period was chiefly provided by local prodigies at church or social gatherings except for an occasional minstrel or traveling road show, and of course the inevitable summer circus.

A later day would no doubt have seen these famous personalities exploited by the community.  But Americans were a far simpler breed of people in those days, and were not seen as front page material.  Neighbors found them to be not only warm and friendly but generous to a fault; their entry into the life of the community with those early theatricals conditioned it for what was to follow.  To a large extent they were indirectly responsible for the building of the Lewis Opera House.

In 1898 an item appeared in the local paper that aroused the townspeople to great excitement.  It was reported that Mrs. Lemon Lewis would erect a new brick block at the east end of the public square which would contain an opera house dedicated to the people of Canton as previously mentioned.

[Page 201]

The building was started that year and finished in the spring of 1899.  When completed it housed the Post Office, the First National Bank, two large stores on the first floor, five office suites, a banquet hall and the theatre on the second floor, and a ballroom on the third.  The location of the theatre on the second floor eventually sealed its doom but more on that later.

A newspaper release dated May 15, 1989, describes the opera house in great detail and is quite unique in journalistic style.  The seating capacity of the theatre was five hundred and fifty with balcony, two boxes on the lower floor, two loges on balcony floor.  The stage was considered sizable at that time, completely outfitted with a gridiron network overhead for the scenery, stage traps and other paraphernalia, with exits to the dressing rooms below.

The scenery was made by a Chicago decorating firm and was adapted for a large variety of plays.  The orchestra pit was complete with racks and lights and a grand piano of historic import, having been owned by the Spanish Ambassador.  That honorable gentleman, according to the news account, had "skipped it and left it" obviously a reference to our war with Spain.

The house was lavishly decorated with fresco work.  Clusters of flowers, painted in pastel shades, adorned the walls and ceiling, the woodwork was cream colored, the carpeting crimson ax minster, and the seats were of cherry veneer.  The chandeliers were of brass and there were three hundred house lights.  It even had a ventilating system to keep the air pure, and this before air conditioning.  The newspaper described it as a glimpse of fairyland.

Another innovation was the electrical switchboard, which controlled all house lights and was equipped to give the special lighting effects required.  Nothing like it had ever been seen in Canton, in fact, electricity itself was a stranger, since the new electric light plant for the town was constructed about the same time as the building.  To the bedazzled crowd who viewed all this splendor on opening night, it must have seemed like a fairyland indeed.

After weeks of anticipation, the big night finally arrived.  It was a gala affair; the house was completely sold out with standing room only.  Guests were present from Troy, Towanda, Wysox, Elmira, New York, and Philadelphia.  Souvenir programs, matching the décor, were distributed to the seat holders.  The play was a comedy-drama in four acts called "The Burglar" by Augustus Thomas, presented by the A. Q. Scammon Company, with a New York cast.

During the years that followed, virtually every type of entertainment appeared at the Lewis Opera House.  Canton was booked on the Philadelphia-Buffalo circuit and was a stepping stone between the longer jumps.  The same shows played Elmira or Williamsport sometimes but often they came here direct from the larger cities.  Many of the show people attributed this to the popularity of the theatre itself which they stated was unequaled outside of the metropolitan areas.

Legitimate plays predominated the offerings, including comedy, tragedy, and good old fashioned melodrama.  Some of these were run of the mill, but there were also such popular shows as "Little Women," "Streets of New York," "The Old Homestead," "Rip Van Winkle," "Puddin' Head Wilston," produced and starred in by Edwin Frank Mayo, "Peg of My Heart," "Peck's Bad Boy," "The American Girl," and a score of others.

[Page 202]

The tragedies included "Romeo and Juliet," Goethe's immortal "Faust," and a dramatic adaptation of Dante's "Divine Comedy," all of which treated a small provincial town to some rather heavy drama.

There were also operettas and musical comedies, minstrels, variety shows, instrumental and vocal concerts, special attractions such as lectures, magicians, circus and vaudeville acts, and countless home talent shows.

The grand opera, "Cavalleria Rusticana," Berlioz' dramatic legend, "The Damnation of Faust," an appearance by the Boston Grand Opera Company presenting opera excerpts, John Philip Sousa and his Band, the Llanelly Royal Prize Choir of South Wales, Platin Brounouff, Russian pianist, Miss Lousie Bavier, English Contralto direct from Covent Garden, and the eminent Elmira composer-pianist, Charles Tomlinson Griffes, were among the never to be forgotten musical events.

Elbert Hubbard, author and lecturer, appeared at the Lewis twice, the second time shortly before he and his wife lost their lives in the sinking of the Lusitania.  Mr. Hubbard was something of a controversial figure, regarded by some as a genius, but by others an eccentric faker, but no one could deny he had a tremendous following.

Another figure of note was Mme. Selma Zoldier, pupil and protégé of David Belasco.  Mme. Zoldier presented a series of dramatic readings and monologues that entranced the audience.

Minstrel shows were extremely popular with their plantation and jubilee songs, cake walks and buck and wing dancing.

Many of the larger companies brought their own scenery to create the particular setting or effect the producers felt necessary.  One play, "Sidetrack," used a railroad station in the background and added a box car for good measure.  It took a bit of doing to fit them both on stage.

"The Old Homestead" depicted a village scene with an old church, school house, blacksmith shop, and grist mill complete with mill wheel.  Everyone loved "The Old Homestead."  It had much the quality of a folk play, simple and Christmasy, a sort of New England Idyl.  The rustic village of he play was Swanzy, New Hampshire, the characters were lifted bodily from its streets and farms.  It was not written at one time as a play, it grew into one.  The veteran character actor, Denman Thompson, originated the role of Joshua Witcomb, the old farmer about whom the action centered; and it was given first as a thirty minute sketch.  As other characters were added to the sketch, they took the form of friends and neighbors Mr. Thompson had known in those New Hampshire hills, his boyhood home.  The sketch, called simply "Joshua Witcomb," became more prolonged and finally evolved into a full three act play at which time the name changed to "The Old Homestead," characters being retained.

Its success was phenomenal.  Next to "Uncle Tom's Cabin" it held the record for longevity.  It ran for thirty years, was seen by ten million people and earned three million dollars.  Oddly enough, although its appeal was universal, it was received with the widest acclaim in Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Chicago.  Denman Thompson died in 1911 at the age of seventy-eight and is buried in Swanzy.  It might be of interest to note that a revival of "The Old Homestead" is produced there for three days every July as a memorial to a beloved, favorite son.

[Page 203]

A performance of "Faust" in 1899, shortly after the opening, brought an intensely dramatic, literate play to Canton, discussed for weeks afterwards.  It was repeated again in 1905 by a different company.  The first one was a special production, well subsidized, with the company's own scenery, rich costumes and a distinguished cast.  An auxiliary switchboard, added to the one already installed, resulted in some very unusual and weird lighting (and lightning) sequences.  Mephisto, garbed in red velvet robes, in some mysterious manner ejected flashes of fire from his feet and arms as he strode about the stage, accompanied by blood curdling laughter.  Faust and his fellow mortals were rather overshadowed by this bit of histrionics.  It is not a matter of record what the audience's church attendance was on the following Sunday.

Melodramas were very popular at the turn of the century, perhaps because they furnished a good outlet for the viewers' emotions.  Audiences were very articulate, hisses for the villain of the piece, tears over the sad fate of the heroine.  Among those that played the Lewis were; "Ten Nights in a Baroom," "A Ruined Life," "Paid in Full," "Bought and Paid For," "The Gambler's Wife," "A Debt of Honor," "East Lynn," and of course, "Uncle Tom's Cabin."  The titles are indicative of what could be expected by way of pathos and always brought forth the linen squares.  A prime favorite all over the country, "East Lynn," was known in the language of the trade as a five handkerchief offering.

The initial appearance of "East Lynn" in Canton was followed by several return engagements, all of which were sell-outs.  One of the performances was nearly disrupted by a practical joker during the final touching scene in which Lady Isabella was about to reach her ultimate end.  Assuming the role of chief mourner, the joker stood in the balcony and sobbed aloud in a voice that penetrated the theatre.  Pandemonium resulted as part of the audience tittered, part expressed indignation.  Lady Isabella, miraculously recovering, jumped from her deathbed and in a burst of temperament, informed the audience the show would go on when they had quieted down.  It was allowed to finish but the final scene was then anticlimactic.

Before 1900 probably the first theatrical performance that most people saw was that immortal classic of the American Theatre, "Uncle Tom's Cabin."  It was first shown in 1852 and ran almost without interruption until the late 1920's.  Revivals cropped out, in modern guise, up to the 1940's.  No one can estimate how many theatres, town halls, fire houses and tents it had played to across the land and how many people had wept over the wrongs inflicted upon that twelve hundred dollar piece of property, Uncle Tom.

Although based on Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, the most widely circulated and perhaps most influential novel ever published, the play made little attempt to adhere faithfully to the book.  There were so man versions no manuscript could have made it altogether coherent, few ever tried.  Each in an effort to crowd as many incidents from the book as possible into the play took outrageous liberties with the plot.  Additional outrages were perpetrated by bringing comedy relief into scenes where comedy neither belonged nor fitted.  It made a rare hash.

Sometimes it was played straight but more often it had music with plantation and jubilee songs, cake walks and dancing, always accompanied by a banjo.  With a small company the musicians doubled up on acting parts for properly presented there could be no less than eighteen characters and these did not include Eliza's child and the slaves.  Neither did it include bloodhounds; failing to provide at least two was the unforgivable sin.  Real bloodhounds were never used, northern audiences refused to accept them because they were unfamiliar with that sad-faced, lop-eared breed.  And only northerners ever saw "Uncle Tom's Cabin."  It was the usual custom to substitute Great Danes or ugly mastiffs to lend realism.

[Page 204]

Mrs. Stowe may have sometime doubted the wisdom of having written the book, if she ever saw the play she was surely convinced.  At its best it was seldom art, at its worst it was the crudest kind of theatrical bunkum.  But an unique American institution was lost when it died.

Several Uncle Tom shows came to Canton, but the most spectacular being given by the Stetson Company.  It had twenty seven characters with no doubles and four bloodhounds, who merited a special place on the program.  They were called Foster, Spot, Prince and Bismark.  They were Great Danes.  The Company also carried its own ascension apparatus for Little Eva's departure from her earthly life and a treadmill to carry the floating cakes of ice across which Eliza had to escape.

During the latter scene disaster again  threatened.  The treadmill stuck and Eliza stuck with it.  Overhead a stage hand, whose task was to allow snow flakes to rain gently down upon her, became excited and dumped it all at once.  She recovered and the show went on.  Backstage, however, there was much apprehension as to whether the ascension machine would get stuck too.

A veteran Uncle Tom actor once recalled that every stage accident possible happened to the show during his barn storming days.  Eliza lost her balance, fell off the ice into the cold rushing river, and climbed back again dry-shod.  The dogs chased the wrong people.  The pistols would not fire.  Eva's ascension into heaven stuck.

Once, when the play was showing in a tent, a heavy rain storm suddenly started.  It was during Eva's death scene and the tent began to leak.  Eva and the members of the household on their knees about her couch, were deluged.  It was ruining their stuff.  Gravely her weeping sire rose, went out onto the wings, returned with a large umbrella used as a prop by one of the comic characters, kneeling again on the floor of the stately drawing room, he held it over Eva's head, in order that his saintly child could die dry.

On another occasion the actress who played Topsy became ill and was unable to go on.  The company was small and all of the doubling possibilities had already been exhausted.  So the manager left the ticket booth, came backstage, blacked up and did Topsy.  Well and good, but he flatly refused to sacrifice his large luxuriant mustache.

The old actor went on to comment that though hard to believe, not one person in the audience laughed.  During serious scenes Uncle Tom audiences always accepted such mishaps with equanimity; they knew how it was supposed to go and regarded any diversion as if it had not occurred at all.

Perhaps this article has strayed from the main subject, the Opera House itself, by relating these incidents.  I have done so because it is being written for the Bradford Count Historical Society.  Its members, I feel, are members because they like to be fully informed of the past, keeping what is best.  The incidentals may therefore add enjoyment to this pursuit.

[Page 205]

This account is not based upon my personal reminiscences.  I never witnessed a professional performance at the Opera House, but they were as real to me as though I had occupied a front row seat.  My father acted as stage manager during most of the years the theatre was in operation.  The stories he told his family about the plays and players enlivened our childhood, in fact we "grew up" on them.  As we became older we appreciated more fully the historical significance of the Lewis Opera House.  Many programs and pictures, some newspaper clippings had been preserved by my family.  We embarked upon a campaign to collect everything we could.  Friends knowing of our interest, have kindly added to the collection.  We even have a piece of the original carpeting.  All this led to a further hobby, the collecting of plays and theatre history of that period.  It has been an absorbing, enjoyable pastime.

Mrs. Lewis was always generous in permitting the townspeople to use the theatre for local events.  Almost every organization sponsored a benefit at some time or other, minstrels, operettas, concerts, or plays.  A number of school commencements were held there as well as conventions and meetings of fraternal organizations.  Many of our citizens were bitten by the acting bug and those who did not take part in the entertainments supported the hometown efforts loyally.

Finally, as the Commonwealth passed more stricter fire laws for public gatherings, the Lewis was forced to close.  Because of its location on the second floor with only one outside fire escape and a hazardous entrance staircase to the auditorium and balcony floors, it could not pass the inspection laws at all.

the last booking was a musical comedy called "Very Good Eddie" with music by Jerome Kern.  It was given on January 22, 1917.  One month later on February 20, 1917, the Village Improvement Association presented a musical comedy, "Fi Fi of the Toy Shop," employing local talent.  It was given one night only, after which the doors were closed for the last time.  Just as it began with a standing room only house, so it ended.

Possibly it ended that way because it was a home talent offering.  But somehow I prefer to think that for our people it was a nostalgic evening.  The Lewis Opera House had served them well; it had been the focal point of their social life for eighteen years; it had brought them to laughter and to tears; it had shown the life of the outside world to one small Main Street, USA; it had inspired them to develop intellectually and musically.  When it ended, a bright chapter in our history went too.  It was truly Canton's golden era.

Harriet L. Doll

The Settler, volume VIII, No. 4 - Published by the Bradford County Historical Society - Towanda, Penna.

Tri-Counties Page 16186
 

Bradford County PA
Chemung County NY
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Published On Tri-Counties Site On 28 AUG 2008
By Joyce M. Tice
Email: Joyce M. Tice