THE HISTORY OF THE
GRANBURY OPERA HOUSE, 1886 – 1911
By Carolyn Kemplin
North Texas State University, M.A., 1978
Note: This is Chapter One of three chapters
Texas independence had not long been won when formal theatre began establishing a toehold in the new republic. Earlier accounts are documented of theatrical activities among the Mexicans in the war camps of both sides, but organized theatre first appeared in the spring of 1837, when G.L. Lyons attempted to bring a dramatic company to Houston, Texas. At that time he was playing the St. Charles Theatre in New Orleans and had had wide experience in the theatres of the United States. However, nothing came of the proposal, and the project was dropped (29, p. 116).
The next year the project was revived and Houstonians eagerly looked forward to the introduction of the drama. On May 26, the Telegraph and Texas Register announced a company from the states was on its way to Texas to occupy the theatre newly-built by John Carlos. On June 11, 1838, the new theatre formally opened with a presentation of Sheridan Knowles’ celebrated comedy “The Hunchback,” followed by the farce “The Dumb Belle.” This was the heyday of the traveling stock company, and many different companies made Houston a regular stopping place, for by 1839 it had become the principal theatre center of Texas (29, p. 119).
In 1845 Joseph Jefferson, appearing with his parents, became one of the first of many famous actors to find his way to Texas. When the railroad made overland travel relatively simple, professional theatre followed close behind. In Dallas, the Opera House opened six months after the railroad came to town (20, p. 134). These companies, as well as the rise in amateur performances, created a need for opera houses, many built for touring companies that made one-night stands. Such famous stars as Edwin Booth, Edwin Forrest, Helena Modjeska, Sarah Bernhardt, and Lily Langtry regularly included Texas in their tours. Professional road shows were plentiful. Some carried their own tents; others played in the opera houses. Their programs were a type of vaudeville, consisting of humorous sketches, songs, dances, and instrumental specialties. Any kind of mind reader was always a good drawing card, as were the particularly popular elocutionists. At rare intervals a theatrical troupe came through, touring Shakespeare or one of the popular shows of the day. In 1898 a grand opera company toured the country, attempting a part of the opera Martha (21, p. 184).
In addition to the professionals, there were many amateur dramatists as well. James N. Smith, who taught school in a log house in Gonzales County in 1840, told how amateur theatricals sometimes came into existence. The young people customarily assembled every Saturday evening to sing, and the idea was suggested that they do some theatre. One of the doctors composed a piece, and once every two weeks they met to act (29, p. 121). The town of Matagorda had an amateur company-known as the Thespian Company of Matagorda-and a distinct little theatre building (29, p. 121). In addition to group entertainment, single entertainers would often tour the countryside and stop at the various towns. The Northern Standard of September 17, 1842, announced the appearance of the “well-known and unrivalled” ventriloquist E.L. Harvey in Clarksville. Tickets were fifty cents each (29, p. 122).
A little theatre movement swept over the country from 1875-1890. By 1885, nearly every town in West Texas had an opera house, which was decidedly the largest and most imposing structure in the community. Interest in both amateur and professional dramatics was intense. Those towns with theatre club members took their work seriously, rehearsing parts for weeks and often months. When time for the public performance arrived, the opera house would be filled and even standing room occupied. Regardless of the true quality of their work, the performers were lauded and extolled for weeks with compliments (21, pp. 182-183). In 1877 a local Fort Worth drama club toured a show to Weatherford, Palo Pinto, Graham City, Brownwood, Stephenville, Comanche, Fort Griffin, and Belknap, places usually bypassed by touring companies (26).
One man built a music hall at Fort Griffin in 1876 and employed ten to twelve so-called musicians to give nightly performances to crowded houses for months. The same year a sleight-of-hand magician rented the district court room at Jacksboro and entertained every evening for weeks before approximately the same crowd (21, p. 184). In Weatherford, an occasional comedy or black-face minstrel found his way to the Haynes Opera House, although the majority of the plays were of the ilk of East Lynn and Ten Nights in a Bar Room (21, p. 184).
The opera house was the mark of civilization in Small Town, Texas, in the Nineteenth Century. Everyone with the slightest veneer of culture attended the performances and discussed the merits of the performers for weeks afterward (12). When movies began to invade the small towns, the opera houses faded. One of the few surviving today is the beautiful old building on the southeast corner of the square in Granbury, Texas.
Granbury was in an area of Texas still considered the frontier, an area where even in Fort Worth only the hardier troupes made their way. An opera house was built and drama was flourishing in Fort Worth by 1876, a decade before culture reached the smaller settlement of Granbury. An article in the Fort Worth Daily Standard of September 21, 1876, reported that the Theatre Comique was crowded to its utmost capacity at Harry Dovere’s benefit. The next night was to be the premiere of Cuba, written by the Comique’s actor/manager Will C. Burton. The Daily Standard went on to report that Howe’s London Circus and Menagerie was preparing to exhibit in the town October 9. During the same time period, a Centennial Theatre was in operation and had commenced publication of a printed program called “The Footlight” (10). The first recognized theatrical troupe was the Adelphi Company, established in 1876, which lasted for three months and then skipped town with everything except the “chairs, benches, curtains, and about 50 glasses” (8).
References to the arts before 1876 in Fort Worth refer to all attractions having been present in the courthouse for a $7.50 a night rental fee (9). In that pivotal year Evans Hall was built over a store on the corner of First and Houston, and it was here that the first recorded opera and drama were seen. Adah Richmond’s English Opera Troupe boasting “40 stars, chorus, and orchestra” appears to have been the first operetta brought to the city. This was the wildly successful The Chimes of Normandie by Robert Planquette. The next evening the company presented Offenbach’s La Perichole (11).
The arrival of the grand opera in 1880 was not very successful. The Italian Grand Opera Company presented Il Trovatore and Martha, both meeting with either mixed or adverse opinion. Touring drama companies fared better (11).
By 1883 a group of civic leaders formed a syndicate to build a theatre with a seating capacity of twelve hundred at the corner of Third and Commerce. Richard III, MacBeth, and Damon and Pythias were all presented during the inaugural season. Other major attractions included a fight between heavyweight boxing champion John L. Sullivan and ex-heavyweight champion Steve Taylor; James O’Neill in the Count of Monte Cristo; and Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. The syndicate operated the house until 1888, during which time more than 270 dramas and operas were presented. That year also the performance of Lily Langtry in A Wife’s Peril and In a Looking Glass, Edwin Booth in Hamlet, and Lawrence Barret in Julius Caesar (11).
In 1890 the opera house was sold to Henry and Phil Greenwall, who renamed the building the Greenwall Opera House and allied themselves with a national touring circuit. During the 1890’s the Greenwalls brought Sarah Bernhardt, Lillian Russell, Harry Fiske, and Richard Mansfield to Fort Worth. The house remained in operation until 1905, when the stage collapsed during a performance of Ben Hur (11).
Around the closing years of the century, many small opera companies came to Fort Worth, such as the Emma Abbott Opera Company starring Emma Abbott, and the Gordon-Shay Company. In 1902 Lillian Nordica and Emma Eames gave solo recitals (11).
In 1898 Fort Worth’s first vaudeville theatre, the Standard, opened at Twelfth and Commerce. The late Bert Swor, one of the greatest of the blackface comedians, started there. A youngster named Buster Keaton appeared in an acrobatic act (9).
This was the big city atmosphere under whose shadow the Granbury Opera House lay. The decade from 1870 to 1880 was perhaps more important in the history of Hood County than any other. The first three courthouses were built there. The county’s first newspaper Vidette began publication. After the Civil War many ex-soldiers and their families drifted out to the frontier and settled the Hood County valleys. During the early seventies, Granbury was a wide-open little frontier town with four or five saloons and many more tenpin alleys. At least one saloon overflowed into the backyard, where games were played on deer hides spread on the ground. From the middle seventies on the scene changed swiftly from large ranches to small farms. By the time the railroads entered the county in the late eighties, even the long cattle drives to Kansas had ceased (6).
In the stress of forging a new community, still subject to Indian attack and not yet having acquired that settled feeling, culture was not forgotten. In was no accident that in Granbury, as in the other West Texas towns of the era, the most splendid building on the square was the opera house. When the doors opened to the public in 1886, it was called Kerr’s Hall after its owner, Henry Kerr (22). A former city official in 1885, Kerr was the son of South Carolinian David Kerr, who married a Kentucky woman in Mississippi and then moved to Newton County, Texas, in 1843 (6, 22). Ten years later the family moved to the Clear Fork of the Trinity River in Tarrant County, and in 1856 relocated on the Kerr Branch of the North Paluxy. Erath County Indian hostilities forced withdrawal of the family to Bee County in 1860, although they later returned (6). In the new opera house, gas lights flickered across the gorgeous red plush (probably red velvet) and gentlemen were asked to remove their spurs for fear of spoiling the decor (1). In the exuberant decades following the Civil War, traveling vaudeville acts, minstrel shows, acrobats, magicians, sword-swallowing feats, and even works of the great bard himself graced the boards of the second-story theatre on the south side of the square. Around the turn of the century, the Opera House was the center of activity in the Granbury area with traveling shows, plays, and entertainment for the farmers, ranchers, and early businessmen (1).
However, to many people the beautiful theatre was the devil’s own handiwork. Established as it was during the Victorian era, when ladies blushed over Hamlet’s vulgar remarks, the theatre was a place of evil and disgrace because of the recreation of famous novels or the era, which were mostly love stories. The thought of two people kissing on stage kept many young people at home; indeed, in many instances they were not even allowed to walk on the south side of the square. In addition, the reputation of the hall was not enhanced by its proximity to saloons and the reputations of its performers (18).
The opera house building was erected in 1886, but the theatre did not officially book acts until 1891. Kerr’s Hall occupied the second story of the building, above a saloon and saddle shop. There a small stage occupied one end of the floor (22). Due to the length of time that has passed since the opera house was in operation, few people remember the shows. Lola Sargent recalls that it was the most gorgeous thing ever seen, while Blanche Gordon, who sang in the opera house for a recital, remembers the beautiful dances with six-piece orchestras from Fort Worth. Lola Sargent also remembers seeing three plays at the famous theatre:
I can remember two men and two ladies riding across the prairie in a surrey who later performed a famous love story, Lorna Doone. They did all of the parts, including the dancing, singing, and acting (18).
Unfortunately, files of old Granbury newspapers dating from this period were destroyed by a radio man-turned-editor who did not realize their historical value, but copies of the Granbury News residing in the Amon Carter Museum archives give an interesting peek at the nature of the opera house. On January 7, 1892, not long after the theatre had opened in 1891, the News reported that they had just turned out an assortment of tickets for Kerr’s Opera House, and they expected that by the next season Kerr would have things in shape to engage some first-class artists (16).
On January 14, the News noted that Henry Kerr had enlarge the stage and installed a complete set of artistically painted scenery, including four drop curtains. They praised the additions to the appearance and convenience of the building.
Earlier, on December 10, 1891, Henry Kerr promised to investigate more closely the character of the troupes occupying his hall and said he would try not to allow the citizenry to be imposed upon if he could avoid it. That promise was evidently made in regard to the morals of some of his lady performers. Unfortunately, Kerr said, “every now and then a tough concern would slip in” (15).
Another old newspaper told of a band concert in the hall in 1891 and a traveling troupe of thirty-four called Newcomb’s American Comedy Company (7).
In the same time period, the News reported that the Billy Kersands troupe of colored minstrels played to a full house at Kerr’s Hall on Monday night. The paper declared it the best show of its kind on the road, but sadly reported that most of the townspeople “kicked against paying a dollar to see it” (16). Billy Kersands was probably the same Billy Kersands known as one of the most famous Negro minstrels of the period. Richards and Pringle’s Georgia Minstrels were a popular colored troupe that had toured for years. They boasted in their membership Billy Kersands, a man supposedly able to hide a billiard ball in one cheek and continue his monologue without the slightest inconvenience (28, p. 173). Earlier history recounts that Kersands, a noted dancer, had belonged to an all-Negro company named The Georgia Minstrels, begun by a Negro named Charles Hicks in 1865. Charles Callender had taken over the company and had in turn been bought out by Jack Haverly. They toured Europe as Haverly’s European Minstrels, headed by Billy Kersands and Sam Lucas (25, p. 26). Frederick Bond cites a William Kersands as one of the Negroes unsurpassed in the art of creating jazz tunes, jigs, and unusual steps and dances (3, p. 19).
On a more elegant note, the diary of a traveling Shakespearean actor came into the possession of the Granbury Opera House Association through the courtesy of Collette (Bird) Thomas. This handwritten diary, displayed in the lobby of the restored opera house, had belonged to Arminedale Cheek or Sleek (the name is difficult to determine due to the faded and smudged writing), who acted in a traveling Shakespearean company under the management of Mr. Boog (or Boag) Senior and Junior, and Mr. Ryan Senior and Junior. During a period from September 15 to December 30, 1887, the company gave one-night stands in towns from Boerne in Kendall County to Trinity in Rusk County, encompassing towns in the counties of Mason, Llano, Brown, Coleman, Tom Green, Callahan, Taylor, Collin, Eastland, Erath, Bosque, Hood, Tarrant, Dallas, and Gregg. On October 24, Cheek played in Granbury and recorded these impressions:
We came here (Granbury) on Saturday from Walnut Springs. We played there a second night to a small house. Came over here by hack driven by Mr. Resterfield. We came through a very pretty town called Glenrose. We stopped here for dinner. We billed to play here tonight but we postponed on account of rain. We all received letters from Ma today. I answered mine, she to answer at Fort Worth.
Fort Worth, October 29th-We came here from Granbury yesterday. We played Granbury on the 25th and 27th…We came back on the 26th and played a second night at Granbury but we had a very small house. We had a little disturbance here on the first night between the Marshal and one of the citizens, but it did not come to much. We put up at the Farr Hotel and I wish it had been a little farther as it was a very poor place to stop at (2).
Other memories of the old opera house are those of Dora Hancock, who was living in Granbury when the Opera House was built. She does not remember any plays or programs in the Opera House, but she does remember her older brother going to dances there on Saturday nights, where a band played. All activities were on the second floor (19).
One of the most intriguing stories emanating from the Opera House concerns one John St. Helen, a bit actor at the old theatre who poured drinks in the bar next door between stints on the boards. Although a bartender, St. Helen never drank-except on April 14. Then he would drink himself into oblivion. That in itself was peculiar, but residents of the little frontier town grew even more curious when it developed that St. Helen’s cousin lived in the vicinity. Her maiden name, which St. Helen had begged her not to reveal, had been Fannie Booth (13).
The most startling evidence that John St. Helen was not who he claimed came when he believed he was on his deathbed. There, in the presence of a priest and a few close friends, including saloon owner F.J. Gordon, he confessed that he was really John Wilkes Booth, President Lincoln’s assassin, and that they would find the murder weapon wrapped in newspaper and hidden behind a certain board in a particular house. A few days later he recovered, and fearing his secret was now disclosed, he fled town as quickly and quietly as he had come (13). When the house was razed in 1938 (or when Gordon investigated the story, depending on the version), the gun was found where St. Helen told them it was, wrapped in a yellowing newspaper headlining the Lincoln assassination. A woman in Goldthwaite now owns the weapon (5).
There are certainly elements of truth about the legend that lend credence to the belief. On several occasions, St. Helen was supposed to have performed scenes from Hamlet and other plays, and in fits of drunkenness was said to have recited long passages from Shakespeare. Historians investigating the Lincoln assassination have never been fully convinced that the Booth shouting “Sic semper tyrannis!” was the one who died in a barn fire twelve days after the murder, nor that he acted alone. How coincidental that Edwin Stanton, who violently opposed Lincoln’s war policies, had resigned that very day. Even stranger is the fact that he directed Federal troops north toward Canada rather than south to search for Booth. The body of “Booth” was never officially identified and was hauled into a federal prison under cover of darkness and secretly buried. Doubts persisted that identification was positive even after the body was exhumed several years later (13).
After Booth-or St. Helen-fled Granbury, legends sprang up that a cultured, dark-haired gentleman was teaching school in Bandera County, in a curriculum heavily laced with drama and the classics. He was engaged to be married to a local rancher’s daughter when he disappeared a few days before the wedding. Residents whispered that he was a fugitive from justice (30, p. 192).
In A Tale of Two Schools and Springtown, Parker County, Joe McCracken tells of a stranger who walked into the clearing around their home and asked for board. This man, known to the McCrackens as Colonel J.W. Merrick, lived with them and taught at several schools. Later he became ill at a home in White Settlement and died before the McCracken boys could arrive and bring him to their home. In later years, the McCrackens had reason to believe that this wonderful friend was John Wilkes Booth. He walked with a limp due to a crippled ankle and often wept when discussing Lincoln’s assassination, declaring innocent people had been punished. Once when slightly intoxicated, he sprang from his bed and repeated several of his famous stage lines. Hearing him, one of the boys became excited and told a Mr. Goforth, who had heard Booth on the stage. After much persuasion, the boy managed to have Merrick repeat the performance, which convinced the hidden Mr. Goforth that the man was indeed Booth. On another occasion, Merrick and a Mr. Matlock were in Dallas, and while intoxicated, he read the well-known lines from a stage setting. When cries of “Booth!” rang through the audience, he hurried out and left Dallas at once. He traveled to Hill County, where he obliterated a carefully-concealed tattoo from his arm (27, pp. 67-68).
St. Helen’s “deathbed” confession led to another in 1913 when a house painter in Enid, Oklahoma, claimed to Lincoln’s assassin immediately prior to committing suicide. A Memphis lawyer and promoter named Finis Bates had the body mummified and toured the country with it. When he stopped in Granbury, the residents there and friends of St. Helen did not know whether the mummy was Lincoln’s assassin or not, but they did know one thing. The body was not St. Helen (13).
Although St. Helen helped the Opera House by providing entertainment on the stage and serving liquid refreshment afterward (and lent his name to the present-day antique shop in the same building), that same liquid refreshment supposedly led to the downfall of the town’s theatrical center. Temperance crusader Carrie A. Nation brought her campaign and her hatchet to town and chopped up seven saloons on the square. After that, the theatre “wasn’t fun anymore.” Another version says Carrie really was not at fault because she had already chopped up the saloons six years earlier, in 1905 (4).
After the final curtain fell on the Opera House in 1911 due to Carrie’s hatchet, former Fall Creek schoolteacher J.B. Wilson operated a grocery store in the building (1). Earlier the location had housed John Reichstetter’s Dallas Bankrupt Store and the South Side Saloon, operated by D.L. Ensminger (1). Reichstetter had been connected with the firm of Perkins and Sons. After it ceased business, he headed a large drug and grocery store, where he met with reverses and went out of business (6, pp. 30-31). His bankrupt store was advertised as the “headquarters for low prices on Boots, Shoes, Hats, and Clothing” (14). The South Side Saloon was probably the same one located on the first floor during the time the Opera House conducted business on the second. In 1935 various concerns were housed in the eastern and western halves of the building. Milt Kennon, a lifetime Granbury native, recalls that the town’s first bowling alley was housed in the edifice during this time (24). In 1937 a concrete floor covered the western half, while the eastern half retained the original wood flooring. In 1940 Joseph Carmichael ran a grocery store on the west side, but during his term of military service, part of the building was leased to [Doctor] T.H. Dabney for $15 monthly and part of it to Doyle Insurance Agency for the same amount. The occupancy listing assumes that since these men were local businessmen, they used the building for related business purposes (1). Sunny Allen of the Hood County Abstract Company said that during the 1950’s Margaret Carmichael ran an abstract company from inside the building, which had deteriorated to the point that the woman had to cover her desk with a plastic cover lest it rain during the night (23). Other residents remember the building being used for harvest festivals. Later, due to financial difficulties, Carmichael borrowed money from a relative, Karl Weiser, and the property was deeded to Weiser and recorded on January 14, 1965. On September 29, 1972, Weiser deeded the property to Joe L. Nutt, a retired businessman whose ancestors were fundamental in establishing Granbury as the county seat. After the Opera House Association was formed, local businessmen borrowed $16,000 to buy the building from Nutt at his cost. He then deeded the now historic site to the Granbury Opera Association on August 28, 1974 (1).
- Allen, Sunny, compiler, “Application for Texas Historical Marker,” unpublished application, Granbury, Texas, 1976, no pagination.
- Diary of Arminedale Cheek or Sleek, actor, Granbury, Texas, 1887, now in possession of Granbury Opera House, Granbury, Texas.
- Bond, Frederick W., The Negro and the Drama, College Park, Maryland, McGrath Publishing Co., 1969.
- Dallas Morning News, June 8, 1975.
- Ellison, Dave, “A Quiet Boom…Granbury,” Texas Metro, (October, 1971), 11-12.
- Ewell, Thomas T., History of Hood County, Granbury, Texas, Frank Gaston, publisher, 1895, reprinted by Junior Woman’s Club, Granbury, Texas, 1956.
- Fort Worth Press, May 14, 1975.
- Fort Worth Star Telegram, November 7, 1948.
- Fort Worth Star Telegram, July 3, 1949.
- Fort Worth Star Telegram, February 12, 1952.
- Fort Worth Star Telegram, January 3, 1971.
- Fort Worth Star Telegram, May 20, 1975.
- Fort Worth Star Telegram, May 20, 1976.
- Granbury, Texas, Granbury News, September 24, 1891.
- Granbury, Texas, Granbury News, December 10, 1891.
- Granbury, Texas, Granbury News, January 7, 1892.
- Granbury, Texas, Granbury News, January 14, 1892.
- Granbury, Texas, Hood County News, February 17, 1974.
- Granbury, Texas, Village Weekly, July 15, 1976.
- Hansen, Harry, editor, Texas: A Guide to the Lone Star State, New York, Hastings House, 1969.
- Holden, William C., Alkali Trails, Dallas, Southwest Press, 1930.
- Interview with Jo Ann Miller, producer, Granbury, Texas, August 18, 1977.
- Interview with Sunny Allen, Hood County Abstract Company, Granbury, Texas, August 18, 1977.
- Interview with Milt Kennon, citizen, Granbury, Texas, June 3, 1977.
- Isaacs, Edith J.R., The Negro in the American Theatre, New York, Theatre Arts, Inc., 1947.
- Lane, Doris Ann, “A History of the Fort Worth Theatre from 1880-1888,” unpublished master’s thesis, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, Texas, 1948, cited in Fort Worth Star Telegram, November 7, 1948.
- Nix, John W., compiler, A Tale of Two Schools and Springtown, Parker County, Fort Worth, Thomason and Morrow, 1945.
- Paskman, Dailey, Gentlemen Be Seated! A Parade of the American Minstrels, New York, Clarkson N. Potter, 1976.
- Schmitz, Joseph William, Texas Culture 1836-1846 in the Days of the Republic, San Antonio, Texas, Naylor Co., 1960.
- Syers, William Edward, Off the Beaten Trail, Waco, Texian Press, 1971.