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Warren County Local History by Dallas Bogan

Lebanon's Opera House Was A Cultural Landmark

Dallas Bogan on 23 July 2004
Dallas Bogan, Warren County, Ohio and Beyond (Bowie Maryland: Heritage Press, 1979) page 340
Return to Index to see a list of other articles by Dallas Bogan

Lebanon's once outstanding landmark, the old Opera House, was a beacon of light for the multitude that had the opportunity to frequent it. It served as a cultural center for the elite as well as the interested. It served as an institution for the betterment of Lebanon citizens as well as for persons in the County of Warren. It was a beehive of activity until its demise, Sunday, Christmas morning, 1932, when the structure was totally destroyed by fire. It was the scene of many a ball, a holiday gathering, or just a mecca for entertainment. A long list of persons of national and international fame performed for the Lebanon audiences. Dramatic, musical, educational and political events, as well as lecture courses, were the performing highlights of the famed Opera House platform.
Political figures that made their appeal to the public, or those who just simply spoke of the times, were of huge enormity. Many Governors of the State of Ohio, during the Opera House's tenure of some fifty-four years, appeared to reveal their message. Two Presidents made their appearance on the Opera House platform, President Harding in 1910 and again in 1914. President McKinley solicited his views from the stage during his Governor's campaign of 1893. Other notables of political stature who implemented their skills on stage were Joseph B. Foraker, Frank B. Willis and Nicholas Longworth. Such notables as Frederick Douglas and Henry Ward Beecher gave impressive lectures regarding the times.
Local talent who performed at the Opera House in musical and theatrical performances, and who became known world-wide, were James E. Murdoch, E.D. Mansfield, Laura Woolwine Bellini, Dolly Woolwine Nobles and Jane Osborn Hannah.
In November, following the fateful fire of the Town Hall of September 1, 1874, Lebanon council asked for an election concerning a bond issue for a new building. Authorization was approved by a vote of 197 to 33 to proceed with the bond issue and a new building. The proposition asked for a 3 1/2-mill levy for a period of eight years; a goal of $45,000 was in the plans. Actual costs of the building exceeded that of the original plans, and architects proceeded to adjust in order to comply with the amount of money at hand. A third floor was eliminated and the building was shortened several feet with other designs altered. A special legislative act was enacted in March 1877 to issue the bonds. This bond act deleted some of the then existing Burns Bond Act. Actual cost of the building was $36,000.
The Opera House was located on the northeast corner of Broadway and Main streets, where the Town Hall now sits. Work began on the stone foundation on July 16, 1877. These stones were transported from Dayton, where they had been taken from some old Miami Canal locks. The foundation wall started from footings 5 ft. 2 in. wide, placed 11 ft. below the pavement, and was 2 ft. 6 in. wide at the top. Outside dimensions of the building were 132 x 64 ft. The auditorium was 101 x 60 1/2 ft., with the ceiling height 32 ft. above the floor. The spire on the tower was elevated to 132 ft. above the pavement. Lew Seiker, one of Lebanon's leading merchants in later years, fired the brick for the structure. Enclosed within the building front were three stone tablets. Berean stone was used to display on either side the seal of the village. On one stone was the number "18," and on the other, "77." Other decorations included that of free masonry displays, galvanized iron and tinwork.
Seventeen chimneys and 20 dormer windows divided the large roof section. The raised cupola corners housed the large tower and steeple into which the clock and bell were installed at a later time. The main hall could seat approximately 900 persons, and a few hundred more, if needed, by the use of additional chairs. Village offices were housed on the first floor.
The facility was decorated inside under the direction of Josiah Morrow, longtime writer of Warren County history. Village council to communicate asked he with select artists, scene painters and stage carpenters, and upon his recommendation, "council contracted with the most talented fresco and scene painters in Cincinnati." The building was completed and opened in September 1878, with Morrow as its first speaker.
Results were so magnificent, according to Morrow, that visiting companies in later years contended that Lebanon had "one of the most beautiful Opera Houses in Ohio."
For the first twenty years the Opera House saw a consistent activity of stage performances. Plays led the list with 309 scheduled. Seventy-one concerts, 65 lectures, 31 minstrels and 58 unclassified performances brought the total to 534. Fifty cents was the going rate for admission for many years, regardless of seating priority. The first week of operation consisted of six plays, three of which collected over $400 in receipts.

The Fire.

Herb Schwartz well remembers the Opera House fire. He was told to stay in the area of his home on East Silver Street by his father, Harry C. Schwartz, and wet down the roof of the neighbor's small four room house, in the event the fire spread to the locality. All persons who were in the path of the burning embers remained either on guard of their property or on their roofs. Water pressure from the pumpers could not reach the tower roof because of its extreme height. Herb said much fear had arisen that the clock tower would fall westward toward The Golden Lamb hotel; however, it did not. Because of the all-wood construction of the interior walls, the building collapsed inward.
From his home Herb said he heard the tower clock fall and hit the basement area. The old clock rang out the hour of four o'clock Christmas morning with flames leaping at the base of the tower. It continued to run until 4:08, and withstood the assault of the flames nearly an hour before it collapsed into the building's interior.
William Henry Newport gave the old clock, along with the accompanying bell, in 1914. The bell was said to have fallen to the second floor in the center of the front of the building, adjacent to the picture projecting room. (Some members of the high school graduating classes customarily climbed the inside of the tower near the clock, and inscribed their names on the walls.)
Marion Mulford was on the roof of the Masonic building, and twice he extinguished the menacing embers by using his coat sleeves. Schwartz's father, having seen the destructive manner and direction in which the fire was spreading, packed and moved the family car into the street in case of evacuation. Schwartz said that pieces of metal from the roof area, from four to six feet, were so hot that some of them actually floated through the air and landed in the schoolyard of the Pleasant Street School. Rolls of movie film were stored in the balcony area; the heat from the fire was so extreme that when it closed in, the film actually exploded, again the water pressure not being enough to reach the area.
Blair Brothers hospital was quickly prepared for evacuation in case the fire spread in that direction. The Oswald and M.E. Merrill Funeral homes had ambulances backed up to the door to remove patients if needed. All medical records were removed from the hospital and the county health board to safety. Fire Chief Pfanzer and Officer Ned Ross set up a patrol of the threatened areas as far away as the French creamery.
No cost estimate was placed on the loss to the building at the time. Members of council who had the responsibility of cleaning up the rubble were: Mayor Ralph H. Carey, Carl S. Bangham, president of council, R. Wilds Gilchrist, J.A. Schilling, Clarence Dunham, O.M. Abbott, Dr. Frank A. Dilatush, W.C. Maple, attorney for council, and M.E. Gustin, clerk of council.
Cause of the fire was first questioned as to Christmas tree lighting to be used for the community Christmas programs. However, Mrs. Edward Blair, chairman of the program committee, said that no tree had been set up for the Monday evening program. Plans called for two small trees without electric decorations to be set up on each side of the stage.
One wise man said: "The curtain has rung down on the last act never to be raised again, but the history of the old Opera House will live forever."

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This page created 23 July 2004 and last updated 28 September, 2008
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