by Norman V. Kelly
As a local historian, most of my writings and speaking engagements concern the bawdy, seedy side of Peoria, Illinois, circa 1845-1950. Seems folks are more interested in our sordid, gangster and gambling past than they are about the truly remarkable history surrounding this great city. So it is with pleasure that I tell you about one of the most beautiful buildings that ever existed here in Peoria, and certainly one of the most interesting ones as well.
Let’s slip back to the 1880’s when life was a bit less hectic, when there was a touch of elegance connected with downtown Peoria, ‘The gem on the Illinois,’ as some writer called Peoria, Illinois. Our population was 29,259, but just a decade later we included 41,024 within the confines of Peoria’s 9.1 square miles of city limits.
In the spring of 1882 the talk among the ‘bluebloods’ was the building being erected just across the street from the courthouse on Hamilton Boulevard. I am referring to the rather wealthy folks in town that had been dreaming about their very own opera house for some time. The ordinary folks in town were not that keen on the idea. The task to bring the dream to reality, fell upon the nationally known Eugene L. Baldwin of THE STAR, a Peoria based newspaper that he founded. There were gripes among some folks that the city could not afford to waste its resources on an opera house for the rich. Mr. Baldwin stopped that complaint by announcing that not one cent of taxpayer’s money would be spent. The wealthy folks, led by Mr. Baldwin easily raised the money and now the building was rising up right there on Hamilton Boulevard, across the street from the courthouse. It was once the site of the Peoria County jail, a filthy, disgusting place indeed.
By August of 1882 excitement began to boil over as pictures and articles of the fabulous Grand Opera House appeared in the newspapers. Advertisements for evening dresses, gloves, fancy shoes, men’s wear and evening apparel filled the local ladies with romantic fantasies of a night at the opera. The smaller shops were offering opera glasses and other paraphernalia connected with an elegant night on the town. Meanwhile, over at the building site workmen were putting the finishing touches on Peoria’s most beautiful building. Folks stood around talking and gawking, watching the progress, anticipating the opening night festivities.
PEORIA’S NEW JEWEL
The moment the sun began to peek its cheery face that beautiful morning of September 7, 1882, workers swarmed over the new building. Inspectors, carpenters, electricians, and tradesmen were making last minute adjustments, and by noon most of them were gone. Across the street a large crowd gathered to marvel at the sight of the new building.
The Opera House stood three-stories tall, built with red pressed Saint Louis bricks in a Queen Anne Style with decorative stone that framed the structure. The dimensions were 72 feet by 171 feet and stood sixty feet high. Twin towers were attached, soaring to the sky, for a total of 100 feet. Four huge, solid oak doors greeted the visitors, and upon entering the building the interior view was breathtaking. Two sweeping staircases, left and right, beckoned with subdued lighting to come forward. Frescos and decorative paintings added to the elegance as the opera patron ascended the carpeted steps.
Patrons were struck by the colors, and vividly blended fineries of the drapes and thick carpeting. Once the visitor entered the galley another vista of overpowering views flooded the senses, as the opera enthusiast got the first glimpse of the fabulous stage. On either side of the theatre were the beautifully appointed boxes that hugged the sides of the walls. All eight of the exclusive boxes were heavily carpeted and fringed with colorful material hanging from the edge of each box. Of course, they were draped for privacy and could be converted to four large boxes if the situation demanded.
Special lighting was evident throughout the interior and even though it was gas lighted, safety was of the utmost importance. The building was equipped with something called ‘Drummond lighting,’ later that type lighting would be referred to as Limelight. Today we would call it state of the art. People who entered the building for the first time walked about in awe, admiring the incredible taste and grandeur of the interior. One quote in the local newspaper summed it up for most Peorians: “I can’t believe we have this place right here in Peoria.”
The Grand Opera House would have the largest stage in town, 72 feet wide and 58 feet in depth. The contractor, John H. Flinn, assured Mr. Baldwin that he would find the building to be “efficient and reliable.” The house would seat 1,744 people, with 634 seats located under the balcony, or the parquet, as it was called. The roomy, upholstered chairs were carefully placed to allow an unobstructed view of the stage. Up in the balcony, six hundred lucky ticket holders could be seated comfortably, with the boxes accommodating another fifty in seclusion.
THE NIGHT OF NIGHTS
Throughout the day, September 7, 1882, it appeared that all the activity in the city revolved around the Grand Opera House there on Hamilton Boulevard. By six that evening, folks from all walks of life gathered along Hamilton Boulevard near the new building. They were there to watch the parade of wealthy folks arrive at the opening night of the Grand Opera House in Peoria.
Inside the building some workers were still putting finishing touches on parts of the building, as the opera house employees dressed and prepared for the onslaught of eager first nighters.
Outside, behind the wooden horses and ropes, people strained to get their first glimpse of a carriage heading toward the opera house. “Here they come!” The first shiny carriage was coming down Hamilton Boulevard heading toward the river. Two beautiful, white matching horses strutted as they shied from the crowd that was now clapping and waving at the elegantly dressed patrons inside the open carriage. Wide-eyed women pointed at the ladies as they stepped down from the carriage, aided by footmen. The ladies were then led to the walkway, where they were joined by their escorts, to begin the slow, arm in arm promenade to the massive doors of the opera house.
Soon the entire length of Hamilton was flooded with beautiful carriages and matching horses of every breed. The carriages, owned by the brewery barons were pulled by stout, powerful horses that the local men called ‘fancy plow horses.’ The distillery barons had as many as four matching horses, all high-strung thoroughbreds, strutting their stuff and bringing sighs and applause from the appreciative crowd. Horses and carriages were a common sight in downtown Peoria as the wealthy whiskey barons showed off their ‘high toned, spiffy carriages and high spirited horses.’ As each lady stepped down the crowd reacted, applauding, whistling and just staring. The men wore high hats and dark, fashionable suits and many of them carried walking sticks bedecked with colorful stones. Some even waved at the crowd as they made the slow walk up to the theatre’s front doors.
For over an hour the parade of ‘fancy dresses, show off jewelry and dandies,’ continued until all those that had an opening night ticket were inside. The show was over for the folks out in the street and slowly they drifted away. With box seats at $100.00 and most of the other tickets out of their price range, they headed home.
THE STAGE IS SET
Inside, newspaper reporters interviewed many of the people, and believe it or not the next day every patron that attended the opening night opera was listed in the paper. Excitement mounted as the patrons talked among themselves. Suddenly there was silence. The colorful curtains slowly opened revealing two-dozen men and women standing on the stage. Mr. L.L. Day stepped forward to welcome the packed house. He introduced the people with him, including Governor Gullen of Illinois and Governor Phelps of Missouri.
The real impetus behind the dream, Mr. Eugene Baldwin, stepped forward bringing a sustained roar from the crowd. His brief remarks ended with, “Let us congratulate ourselves and be happy.” As the dignitaries exited the stage the orchestra began to play, quieting the audience.
As if by magic, the stage filled with the players, and from stage left Emma Abbott, Peoria born, and international opera star, flashed her beaming smile at the crowd. The applause exploded as she took in the scene before her, looking at every section of the theatre. Although Miss Abbott was the star of the show she had surrounded herself with famous singers and players from around the world. It was Abbott’s Theatrical Company that had contracted with Baldwin’s people to stage a three-day opening for the Grand Opera House.
The opening show was the operetta “King For A Day.” The morning newspapers did not give the show great reviews, but the chorus was said to have been magnificent. Miss Abbott was favorably reviewed and referred to as “A child of the city.” Opening night was considered a smashing success and the comments in the newspapers reminded their readers that there were two more shows coming from Miss Abbot and that the festivities marking the opening of the opera house were just beginning.
For the next two nights the crowds gathered, each somewhat larger than the first. Reports stated that the first night raised $8,500 and of that, $5,850 went to Miss Abbott’s theatrical company. Friday evening the opera “Lilly of Blarney,” wowed the patrons, many of whom had tickets for all three nights. Saturday evening, Belin’s immortal “La Ionnambula,” brought the attendees to their feet begging for more.
Because of the immediate success of the opera house, the National Hotel was built nearby. The hotel had a huge bar, and more than one male patron never made it back to the second act. There was a buzzer system installed behind the bar to summon the wayward, but it was generally ignored.
So from the very first night the Grand Old Lady, as the opera house was later called, was a colossal success. Reports stated that each year at least 250 shows of one kind or the other were performed on her magnificent stage. One critic said of the opera house, “She was a meeting place for cabbages and kings.” Great acts like Edward Thomas Booth and The Great Salvini brought works like “The Merchant Of Venice,” and “Othello,” here, which thrilled Peorians to their very cores.
THE LADY GOES DOWN
On December 14, 1909, the tragic news spread around town like wildfire. At 1:30 in the morning the first fire alarm went out bringing every man and available piece of equipment to fight the raging fire at the Grand Old Opera House. Sadly, by the time the inadequate equipment and firefighters arrived, Peoria’s most beautiful structure was already gone.
Throughout the entire day, and for weeks to come, saddened Peorians shuffled slowly past the ruins of the once proud landmark. The Grand Old Lady was gone, and Peorians mourned her passing. The blighted shell stood there as a grim reminder of her once glorious days, until Frank Ryals bought the land. It was not until 1916 that the vacant spot was turned into a parking lot.
I have thought a lot about that majestic building that brought so much fame, enjoyment and pride to Peoria, Illinois. I thought of the people, the rich and the poor, the famous and the farmer who loved the place so very much. It was truly a majestic, marvel of the times. The next time you hear people talk about Peoria and her gangster and gambling reputation, you tell them about the Grand Old Opera House. A beautiful place that lasted through the Gay 90’s and into the Twentieth Century, right here in our little old town. She’s gone, but her memory lingers faintly to this day.