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Catlin History Online

Catlin Opera House --
Reminder of a Bygone Era

Building Erected When
Vaudeville Was in Its Glory

Originally published Sunday, July 16, 1961, in The (Danville) Commercial-News. Reprinted with permission.

It was a mild winter night, Dec. 17, 1904, and in Catlin the whole town had turned out at the Opera House to see the Sharpsteens.

Billed as Verne and Sopha Sharpsteen, versatile sketch artists, comedians, monologue artists and vocalists of descriptive and popular songs, the duo had arrived early in the afternoon on the Wabash train.

The carbide gas lamps sent a warm glow over the high ceiling hall and the stage lamps were focused on the brightly decorated curain recently donated by the local merchants.

On the main floor the women in their long skirts and plumed hats, and men in high necked collars and moustaches were gathered in groups discussing their impetuous president, Teddy Roosevelt.

The youngsters were squirming in their seats, impatient for the show to begin.

On the small balcony, the young bucks were smoking their "Uncle Joe" cigars and smiling knowingly about the Turkish "dancer" who had recently graced the stage of the Danville Grand Theater.

The Sharpsteens were only one of the many vaudeville era acts which took the stage at the 64-year-old [in 1961] Catlin Opera House and Masonic Lodge.

The building was planned in 1896 when the Catlin Lodge 285 AF&AM, was forced to move from its quarters on the third floor of the old grade school building.

The three-story frame structure which stood where the old grade school building in Catlin now stands, had been condemned as unsafe for school.

A lot belonging to Mason W. A. Jones was purchased by the lodge for $127 and plans for the building were underway.

Ground was broken on Sept. 14, 1896.

There is no date recorded as to when the building was completed. In December, 1896, the structure was far enough advanced that the lodge hired T. E. Jones to keep the fires at a salary of $1 per night.

The first masonic lodge meeting in the new building was held March 13, 1897, and on Wednesday evening, May 19, 1897, an open house celebration was conducted.

Hanna Mariah, the pseudonym of G. Wilse Tilton, in his Danville Daily News column "Catlin Clack," reported that "On the occasion there will be no parade and no prepared, unendurable, long-winded speeches; but the building from foundation to turret will resound with music and mirth."

He goes on to say, "Twenty one loads of the finest fruit that ever man or woman tasted is described on a bill of fare which will be scattered broadcast among the guests as free as the air on Pratt's Hill, that is the Bill of Fare will be free; the victuals, however, will be offered at cost and in quantities to suit the purchaser.

"Committees have been appointed and will be in their places anticipating the wants of all visitors.

"Morris & Son, our liveryman, impressed with the magnitude of our rejoicing, has undertaken to give shelter and safety to at least one hundred teams.

"The Wabash will stop the evening and night trains. The moon will shine and zephyrs from the south will float in the evening breeze."

Vaudeville posters pasted on the walls in the basement of the building describe other traveling shows that stopped at the Catlin Opera House.

Mr. and Mrs. Louis Von Weithoff were featured with the Great Northern Stock Company, March 24-28, 1906 in such dramatic presentations as "Lady Dudley's Secret" and "Lord Chumley."

The matinee admission price was 10 cents to all parts of the house.

Other shows that played one-night stands in Catlin were the Bowery Burlesquers and a "Powerful Melodrama" of villainous deeds and beautiful heroines.

The antique curtain which advertised local merchants of the 1900s still hangs in its place as it has for over 50 years. [This curtain is now in the collection of the Catlin Historical Society.]

Gones and Sandusky "fine furniture" at 37 N. Vermilion St., T. Conron Hardware "sellers of good goods" at 116-120 E. Main St., Benjamin's Temple of Music, the Catlin Monitor and the Henderson-White Livery and Feed Stable are only a few of the inscribed merchants.

Another antique to be found backstage in the Opera House is the carbide gas tank.

Surrounded by a maze of brass tubing and valves, the tank was used to store gas produced by a slow drip of water on carbide. The gas was then piped to the lamps and burned to light the high ceiling hall.

Many organizations and clubs have used the building for a meeting place. Besides the constant use by the 103-year-old Catlin Masonic Lodge, the Catlin Lions Club, Catlin Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts have held meetings in the downstairs area.

Catlin High School used the downstairs to play early basketball games despite the two center support poles.

Vaudeville died at the hands of motion pictures and a bustling America. The widows of vaudeville, the empty and deserted opera houses that dot the country, are alive but lonely.

And if one could sit quietly on a Saturday night and listen with imagination, the echoes of a by-gone era, the sounds of laughter, the boos, the hisses, the storms of applause, the music, the jokes - each in turn might be brought to mind, if not in reality, at least in memory.


Catlin Historical Society
210 North Paris
Catlin, Illinois 61817