The Lexington Opera House is listed as a member of the Bluegrass Trust for Historic Preservation

Written by John Alexander

Chapter 1 - The Foundation

The Lexington Opera House observed its Silver Season in 2002, noting with pride that its courageous move to renovate the theatre at a time when other cities were building parking lots where their theatres had been was a successful idea.

But to understand the full significance of the presence of the Opera House in this community, you need to be aware of the 210-year history of theatre in Lexington. Theatres are more than just buildings — they take on personalities which reflect the reasons they exist. In this case, the building we honor this season is a direct product of a tradition which began in Lexington’s earliest days.

Imagine with me the Central Kentucky of the 1780s and ’90s. It was the neck of a funnel, with almost everyone who was going west in those years coming through Central Kentucky. The rivers carried some, others followed the Wilderness Road and still others followed trails. They came in unimaginable numbers, and some of them stayed. Though travel was difficult — either on horseback or on foot, perhaps on a wagon — over roads that were merely trails in the dirt, those who were settling were bringing with them the necessities of civilization, including schools.

As early as 1780 the Virginia Assembly chartered “a public school or Seminary of Learning” to which it granted 8,000 acres of land confiscated from British loyalists as an endowment. Three years later the assembly added 12,000 acres to the endowment, and classes were started in the cabin of the Rev. David Rice near Danville in 1785. In 1789 classes were moved to a cabin on the outskirts of Lexington, and in 1790 to the home of the Rev. James Moore, who was also rector of Christ Church.

That was the year — two years before Kentucky gained statehood — that students from the school (Transylvania University) performed before a “respectable audience” an unnamed farce and an unnamed tragedy. These were the first theatrical productions of record west of the Allegheny Mountains. They were reviewed 16 days later by The Kentucky Gazette. Move the calendar up to May 19, 1801, and you find a notice in Stewart’s – Kentucky Herald that The School for Arrogance and The Farmer were to be offered in “the theatre” on Thursday, May 21. This is the first notice of a permanent theatre whose location was assumed to be common knowledge west of the Alleghenies. Cincinnati didn’t have a theatre until five months later.

Interest in and growth of the theatre was phenomenal. The Kentucky Encyclopedia maintains that there were almost 600 productions of plays in Kentucky between 1790 and 1820. A review of newspaper ads from those days indicates the bulk of them were in Lexington. One reason for this was likely Luke Usher, apparently the first professional theatre manager in the state, who arrived here in 1806 and opened Luke Usher’s New Theatre in Lexington in 1808. He soon controlled theatres in Louisville and Frankfort as well as his Lexington base of operations. This tended to solidify Lexington’s influence. The Ushers also organized a professional production company.

You frequently find Lexington referred to as “the Athens of the West” and usually it refers to the tremendous influence of Transylvania University and its medical school and seminary, to the newspapers published here, to the politicians and landowners.

But it refers equally to the entertainment culture, especially theatre. At this time in history, Lexington’s population was larger than that of Chicago, and the residents highly educated. Thus, Lexington had quality professional theatre 20 years before St. Louis and 30 years before Chicago.

It is on this foundation that Lexington’s present culture and the Opera House are built.

Chapter 2 - Early Theatres

Lexington’s Opera House does not stand alone in history. Rather, it is the logical culmination of a culture which grew steadily through the 19th century.

To the point: a few of us were standing outside today’s Opera House and the comment was made, regarding the Lexington Children’s Theatre across Short Street, that “this would be an ideal place for an entertainment district.” And it would be. And it has been before.

In fact, the entire Lexington Center complex geographic area comprised the theatre district for more than a century. It seems to have started on October 12, 1808, when Luck Usher’s New Theatre was opened at Spring and Water Streets (both now covered by the Lexington Center). In that year Lexington began having regular theatrical seasons, which included eighteen attractions by 1810. Beginning in that year, there were always at least two houses competing for business, at times several of them.

One of them was Lell’s, which at various times was known as Lell’s Hall, Lell’s Casino Theatre, and Lell’s Opera House. Located on Short Street, just west of Broadway, it had little in common with the Opera House of today, except maybe a name. Lell’s was more like a night club where the audience drank beer while watching a “girlie” show with a male comedian as top banana. Women were rarely seen in Lell’s except on stage. All of this is mentioned only because some purists insist that Lexington never had burlesque, only vaudeville. Which is, of course, nonsense. Lell’s was burlesque pure and simple.

To return to the topic at hand, the area around Broadway and Main Streets was literally full of theatres that opened and then closed. One of them, at the southeast corner of Main and Broadway which opened in 1850, came to be known as The Opera House and emerged as the leader. It came to attract such luminaries as Edwin Booth, Scout of the Plains starring Buffalo Bill Cody, General Tom Thumb and his dwarf troop. It prospered during the Civil War and began to gain some prestige on the circuits, although it didn’t offer the nationally famous entertainment on a regular basis.

This theatre became a staple of Lexington’s culture, even though it is said to have been “little more than a barn.” And it was beginning to attract tourists to Lexington to see the plays. According to hotel managers who remembered well the tremendous economic impact of the present Opera House, the beginnings of that tradition started right here.

Thus it was something of a community shock when, on the morning of Jan. 15, 1886, fire took less than a hour to level the structure. Theatre had reached such a level of importance in Lexington that not only was there emotional impact, but economic impact as well. Livery stables (remember, horses were the transportation then), hotels, restaurants, transportation companies all were affected.

Chapter 3 - A New Opera House

Perhaps there is truth to the adage that you really don’t miss anything until it is gone. Such, it seems, is the case with the Opera House because plans to construct a replacement were initiated almost immediately after fire destroyed the original structure in January 1886.

Oscar Cobb of Chicago, the leading theatrical architect of the day, was hired to design the new theatre and the architecture-construction contract was awarded to H. L. Rowe of Lexington by the Broadway Real Estate Company. Construction began in June of 1886, and was completed by July. Cobb, who was later to design the Cincinnati Shubert as well as other prominent theatres, spared no expense in creating an opulence soon to become the benchmark against which other new theatres were evaluated.

One reviewer called it “one of the costliest, handsomest and most convenient Thespian temples in the South” and “an object of cherished pride in the city.” Another pointed out that “every seat is cushioned and comfortable and 596 of them are elegantly upholstered with Turkey morocco and velvet, with hat racks and cane and umbrella holder, and a most ingenious arrangement by a spring in the back for assisting persons into their seats. There are 250 gaslights, 37 sets of scenery and a drop curtain. The frescoes are all gems, from the beautiful female figures made to appear life-size in the dome down to the smallest flower.”

Safety was a concern — the house had standpipes with water under pressure and abundant hose connections which could flood the whole stage from loft to boards in a minute in case of fire. Comfort was another concern — a six-inch pipe from a nearby ice factory ran ice water into the building to cool the temperature.

There was an economic goal as well. Lexington was strategically located for acts traveling the major circuits between Louisville and Cincinnati and later to Knoxville or Chattanooga. Railroad connections, which were needed to transport the sets as well as the actors, were excellent.

The goal was apparent — and once again shows an amazing amount of foresight on the part of the builders. In those days there was no radio, no television, no wire services for news. Also, there was no basketball, no football, no baseball. Just the presence of someone from out-of-town was a curiosity — he or she might have news. A whole company of out-of-towners was indeed something else. Not only that, but it was easier to bring the theatre to Lexington than to take Lexingtonians to an out-of-town theatre.

The appeal was to the masses, the pitch was for diversion and entertainment, and the response was tremendous. The manager of the Leonard Hotel (during the heyday of the Opera House) said that weekend trips to Lexington to the theatre were regular fare.

Chapter 4 - Good Timing

The timing really couldn’t have been much better. Construction of a theatre which was to become a model for houses yet to be built, in a city already known for its society and such, and the Gay ‘90s about to begin. You really couldn’t ask for much more in order to create an atmosphere of extravagance and conspicuous consumption.

The present Opera House opened with a concert by the Cincinnati Symphony on July 19, 1887, and a month later (Aug. 29) offered its first dramatic event, Our Angel starring Lizzie Evans. For quite a while the theatre itself was the star. When it opened it came equipped with an Edison light board, state of the art at the time, which was still operable at the time of the 1976 renovation. The stage had a complex series of trap doors to enable horses (and other animals) to be used in stage productions. Both these features were innovations in that time and place. The theatre was in two parts, the auditorium and stage area, which backed up to Saunier Avenue as it does today, and reaches about half way to Broadway. It was four stories high, the stage area contained about 2,220 square feet, the auditorium about 3,360. There were two balconies. The original entrances apparently were arcades built on leased property, soon replaced with an entrance lobby 32 feet by 80 1/2 feet, facing Broadway. It had three stories and an alley separated it from the buildings to the north, including a 37 by 57 foot building used for dressing rooms and storage. It was rather obvious the engineering went into the auditorium and stage area, the rest was after-thought.

The continual rainfall in An Inspector Calls was touted as – and actually was – a landmark in stagecraft. But it wasn’t the first on the Opera House stage. It wasn’t all that long after opening before several extravaganzas began to attract attention throughout the region. Almost immediately there was the Henley Regatta (in 1890) for which the stage was flooded and in which most of the action took place in rowboats.

Then, in 1893, came Country Circus, which featured 100 animals and a mile-long parade which comprised the entire third act. Extensive remodeling was needed before Ben Hur could be staged with its on-stage chariot race. The Morning Herald reported that this stage was better equipped than the Broadway stage on which it had opened. Transporting the company involved ten 60-foot baggage cars, two stock cars, ten Pullman sleepers, two-day coaches and two diners. There were no trucks or buses in those days.

The real feature of the house turned out to be the acoustics. The old-timers who worked there insisted there wasn’t a bad seat in the house, sight-wise or sound-wise. Those acoustics have carried over well into the renovated Opera House. The house not only carries stage whispers quite well, but it also picks up audience whispers and foot shuffling and such and carries it around the house as well. Proof is the night of Eugene Fodor’s appearance with the Lexington Philharmonic – the inaugural event – when a buzzing could be heard all over the house. The electronics were checked and so on, and it turned out to be a pager in a doctor’s pocket, but it carried so well it couldn’t be immediately traced.

The good times continued to roll until the Roaring ’20s, when a number of things combined to choke theatre throughout the country.

Chapter 5 - Hard Times

The good times rolled on for about a quarter of a century, then came cultural changes too difficult to accommodate. The automobile replaced the horse for transportation, and people began taking longer trips. The trip to Lexington was no longer an event, but just a day trip. Radio brought entertainers into the home, where before people had to go to theatres to hear the entertainers. Most of all, motion pictures began to replace legitimate theatre for entertainment.

Lexington fell victim to the trend. The last full season at the Opera House was the 1920-21 season, and the last live performance in that house was The Arabian (Oct. 1, 1926). Declining profits due to movies and radio made management unable to meet the demands of stagehands and musicians, and the house went dark for the first time since it had opened. It was quickly converted to a movie house. A false ceiling was added and the boxes were boarded up. Though vaudeville and burlesque played occasionally, and though there were still occasional legitimate productions, the days of Lexington being a theatrical center were over.

But not without some contributions to regional and national theatre – and not without some laughs. The list of performers is a veritable “Who’s Who” of theatre of that day – all the Barrymores, Otis Skinner, W.C. Fields, Sarah Bernhardt, Lillian Russell, Maude Adams, Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, Houdini, Al Jolson, Ada Meade, Will Rogers, Edward Everett Horton, Sophie Tucker and Helen Hayes for starters. The John Philip Sousa Band and the Victor Herbert Orchestra were regulars. The significance is that it shows that Kentucky was not a backward place. This was a commercial venture for profit, and most of these folks kept coming back, which means they were well-accepted drawing, at the very least, respectable audiences.

And there is the contribution the Lexington Opera House made to construction of Cincinnati’s Shubert Theatre. Though the entrance to the Shubert was on a corner instead of the middle of a block, once inside the houses were hauntingly similar. David Merrick, who brought I Do! I Do! to the Cincinnati Shubert for its warm-up run said the reason he chose that theatre was because it was the only one in the country which worked in an intimate setting. Its acoustics were copied from the Opera House by Oscar Cobb, who designed that theatre from a YMCA building. The acoustics have been copied frequently, but never seemed to work quite as well as here and the Shubert.

[A now-somewhat-amusing glitch marked the early years of the Opera House: Nine actors performing in Oh! Calcutta! were arrested and charged with violation of a new obscenity ordinance. This was nothing new really. In 1891 the display of a woman’s bare leg on the stage brought a plea from a local church that “a bombshell fall in the midst of the Opera House and completely crush it.”]

Ironically, the Opera House even brought on its own competition. One night in 1913, Mrs. James Ben Ali Haggin returned early from a trip and went to the Opera House, where she discovered the seats in her box had been resold and were not available to her. In retaliation, her husband built a theatre, the Ben Ali, which competed with and could have rivaled the Opera House. However, it too fell into decline.

Thus came to an end the glory days of the first part of the 20th century. But there was more to come.

Chapter 6 - The Movie House

If the Harry Schwartz family had any doubts about the future of the Opera House as a movie house, it wasn’t apparent in the ads of the time. They seemed confident that converting the Opera House was the right move (the rest of the country was doing the same thing) and actually quite proud to be the first to offer “moving pictures” to Lexington.

But, they were running into competition from the Ben Ali, which also converted, from the Strand and from the Kentucky, which the Switow family from Louisville built with every intention of making it the finest motion picture palace in the south, complete with Wurlitzer theatre organ, uniformed doormen to open your car doors and a decor which actually rivaled that of the Opera House.

The Opera House, meanwhile, had been remodeled. A false ceiling cut off everything above the second balcony, which was reserved for “colored people.” The balcony boxes were plasterboarded. The acoustics were destroyed.

It seems that the main factor in destroying the theatre’s business was not so much the other movie houses but the depression. Not only the Opera House, but the Ben Ali and the Kentucky tried bringing in occasional stage shows (the last at the Opera House was Tobacco Road in 1936) as well as vaudeville and burlesque. They met with little success.

Price Coomer says he went to work for Harry Schwartz, the absentee owner, in 1930 and bought the house from him in 1955. He remodeled it several times as a movie house, and to him belongs the credit for saving it from the first wrecker’s ball. This was in 1961, when both the Opera House and the adjacent Peerless Laundry were scheduled to be demolished. Ultimately, the laundry was torn down and an important windbreak protecting the theatre was removed.

In 1968, freak winds caused part of the false ceiling to fall and also caused many of those who were involved in the urban renewal project which was getting underway in downtown Lexington to want to include the Opera House in its scope. They saw it only as a third-run movie house or worse (which by now it actually was) and they were totally unaware of both the rich tradition which was associated with the house, and the vast treasure of theatre architecture which remained intact behind the cheap facade.

Public and private campaigns were started to educate the public as well as community political and financial 1eaders about the heritage involved with the historic structure. It came to a head in 1973, when a high wind demolished the roof of the building. Building inspectors determined the building was essentially sound, and urban planners discovered that it would be cheaper to renovate the structure ($2.5 million) than to build a new one ($7 million). Besides that, there was some thought that some city somewhere should begin to preserve some of its past.

At about this same time there was announced that the Cincinnati Shubert would be closing and its property turned into a parking garage. This was the most important legitimate theatre in the nation, because it was frequently used as a test market. Located in the mid-west, it had uncanny accuracy regarding audience reaction. It was there that David Merrick restructured I Do! I Do! into the hit it became. It was there that ?Tea for Two? was added to No, No, Nanette! and also became a hit, and there that others were tested against audiences in warm-up runs.

There was only one other house in the region that shared such a tradition — the Opera House. Private and public fund drives were started which culminated in the attachment of the Opera House to the Lexington Center complex.