MOUNT VERNON -- It's a never-ending marketing game to try and claim superlatives, but Mount Vernon's Woodward Opera House earns its tag of being the nation's “oldest authentic 19th century theater.”
In contrast, the oldest continuously operating theater in the United States is the Walnut Street Theater, in Philadelphia, which has been running since 1807. Along the way, though, that theater has updated its stages continuously to the point that it looks like pretty much any modern theater.
The Woodward's original characteristics were saved by the very thing that killed it in the 1920s: motion pictures. As America became infatuated with film, old theaters that were situated to present minstrel shows and vaudeville became obsolete. Since the Woodward was in a commercially active building, however, the theater was left as a storage area while life continued on in the building until a move began 20 years ago to restore the gem.
Though neglected for years, the original theater's characteristics were preserved. It's poised now to impress, restored to period charm with modern functionality by the Woodward Development Corporation.
The venue was built by Mount Vernon doctor Ebeneezer Woodward, who had the good idea to put the theater on the third and fourth floors of the building, allowing for businesses to occupy the lower floors, which saved the building from demolition after the theater shut down.
The place opened in December of 1851, with a lecture on electricity by Dr. Boynton.
A sampling of other events throughout the years:
The Mount Vernon chapter of the Knights of Pythias fraternal lodge “made arrangements for a grand ball and supper” at the Woodward. “A good time is expected,” the correspondent to the Cincinnati Enquirer dryly noted.
Cincinnati's General Banning made a “booming” political speech that October supporting presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden.
A local correspondent to the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote: “The crowd was immense and the enthusiasm immenser. The Congressman from the Second District poured hot shot and shell into the terrified Radicals, and in his most eloquent and impressive manner urged his old friends and neighbors to support Tilden and Hendricks.” So much for confidence. Tilden lost the election.
The Mount Vernon Republican News ran a review criticizing actor Owen O'Connor's performance in a nationally touring production of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's play Richlieu as “faulty,” but mainly commented on an incident.
Apparently some young men had downed some not inconsiderable quantities of alcohol before venturing to the theater. Less than impressed with the well-known actor's inaudible lines and constantly turning his back to the audience, the young men in the balcony began heckling the actors mercilessly.
In a moment that the newspaper described as “the best part of the performance and the most dramatic,” O'Connor stopped the performance and berated the hecklers, calling them “dogs” and “a pack of hounds.” O'Connor threatened that if they didn't stop heckling, he would have police clear the gallery.
The rest of the audience was in sympathy with the performers and cheered, and the hecklers shushed up. But one of them, deeply offended, came downstairs and made his way backstage where he asked that Mr. O'Connor be informed that the young men were students from prestigious Kenyon College and demanded that O'Connor apologize.
O'Connor suavely stepped in front of the curtain before the beginning of the final act of the play and said that he was not aware that the gentlemen in the balcony were from Kenyon College. He said that having been a college student himself in his youth, he knew that “when several glasses of wine were in, wits were out,” and that when students had swallowed two or three bottles of Mumm's Extra Dry, they were inclined to be a little hilarious.
He concluded this droll apology by bowing and saying, “Men of Kenyon, I salute you.” The rest of the audience roared with laughter.
The noted tenor Signor Joseph Muscat, the Newark Advocate tells us, got married to “one of Mt Vernon's charming young society ladies,” Miss Emma Lewis, at the beginning of a performance of the operetta “The Four Leafed Clover.”
Muscat, “who created such a stir in musical circles in this city some months ago,” had only been in town for three weeks on this occasion before taking up his bride.
They later toured around the country before settling down in Wellington, Ohio, where Joseph taught music and Emma raised children Lucien, Beatrice, and Leo.
According to a report in the Akron Beacon Journal, the Woodward Opera House was ordered to be closed by the State Inspector of Buildings unless certain changes to the fire escapes were made at once. Apparently the changes were made, for there is no follow-up article about the building closing.
The Chillicothe Gazette ran a brief article from their unnamed Mount Vernon correspondent about a boxing match held at the Woodward in July.
“Kid Moore, of Mansfield, and Denny Gallagher, who claims to be the 126-pound champion of Canada” fought 20 rounds. The correspondent was not impressed. “It was hippodrome of the tamest kind,” opining that the audience only tolerated it because no boxing had appeared at all in Mount Vernon for the last four years.
“Any advantage possessed by either man was possibly in favor of Gallagher, but neither man seemed to know the first principles of the game.”
He noted that 700 paid admission to the event.
In March, the Democratic Banner reported that six youths, aged 12 to 15, had been arrested for burglarizing the Pitkin Grocery Store. The boys had cleverly climbed a telephone pole to find an open window at the rear of the store, and stole tobacco, candy, and cigars, which they then took to the Woodward Opera House.
By climbing a fire escape, they were able to sneak into the opera house and store their loot there, using it as a party place. Complaints about the boys playing in the theater was what led to the discovery of their stash and their arrest. The boys, who confessed, were to be brought before the juvenile court judge later in the week. So much for the good old days, when we are told everyone behaved better.
The Ohio Power Company announced that they would be giving an exhibition and talk about new advances in industrial lighting at the Woodward. Their claim was that an engineer in Chicago had found a way through improved lighting to increase his company's productivity by 35 percent, without adding to the payroll.
“Nothing for sale,” they noted in their ad in the Democratic Banner, which gave the performance locale as the Old Woodward Opera House. “You are asked to sit in judgment on the presentation of an idea by one of the country's prominent illuminating engineers.” I wasn't able to shine any light on the success of their presentation.
Today, with the venue's restoration and reopening, let's hope the Woodward Opera House once again becomes a center for community life and adventure.