Opera House Remembered, Alberta Hacker-Frost

Memorable Moments

 

 

 

From the Sturgis Journal, 2006, by Terry Katz: “COLON – Alberta Hacker-Frost was 16 when she stepped inside Hill’s Opera House in Colon for the first time.

That was in the spring of 1934.

Now, it’s still difficult for her to picture what’s left of the Opera House that was destroyed by fire October 12, 2006.

She lives in Sturgis and hasn’t returned to Colon since the firs. She does plan to make a trip when she’s feeling better.

Thoughts of the fire stirred many memories. Hacker-Frost was a member of the Colon class of 1934 that held its commencement, baccalaureate service and senior class play on stage at the opera house.

 

Reminiscence

 

As Hacker-Frost began to reminisce, she found the original high school programs and newspaper clippings from her class of 42 years ago.

She was the class salutatorian and on June 7, 1934, her class of 24 members was graduated.

The class valedictorian was Margaret Loudenslager, who maintained a four year average of 94.5 percent.

Commencement activities began on May 24 with the annual junior-senior banquet. The Reverend L. A. Townsend delivered the baccalaureate service on “The Highway of Life” Dean David Trout of Hillsdale College gave the commencement address. She recalled that part of the class night program June 6 was a review of the 1934 class history as narrated by Max Groth and Jack Damon. They were only two students who attended grades K-12 with the class. Many students started their education in Colon, but either moved or dropped out before graduation.

She joined the class from Foote School east of Leonidas. Other students came from Coldwater, Burr Oak, Matteson, Riverside, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek and Indiana.

The senior class play presented at Hill’s Opera House on May 11 was a four-act comedy drama of small town life called “Windy Willows.”

Members of the class of 1934 at Colon High School were: Dale Adams, Max Whitmore, Lewis Brandt, Rose Mary Cooper, Lyman Decker, John Eberhard, Max Goth, Donald Hobday, Majorie Loudenslager, Irene Rosenberry,
Richard Sager, LeRoy Whitford, John Ware, Spencer Bower, Gerald Brooks, Jack Damon, Hilda Decker, Mary Elezroth, Alberta Hacker, Herman Kessler, Margaret Loudenslager, Phil Rudd, Kathryn Sprowl and Helen Wood.

LeRoy Whitford and Marjorie Loudenslader were seen in the leading roles.

An old program shows that Max Auten carried the chief comedy role in the portrayal of the rustic constable and storekeeper.

The comedy featured Mrs. DePuyster, a city visitor whose love affair with the village constable furnished much merriment. Margaret Loudenslager played the role. Hilda Decker had the part of Carrie Tibbs, whose love for her brother brought out in this story of small town life.

Donald Hobday and Jack Damon played the village banker and his son. Herman Kessler portrayed Billy Fortuen, who does much to upset their plans.

Tickets were sold at several locations in Colon. General admission was 15 cents.

For Alberta Hacker-Frost, the loss of the Opera House felt like a death in the family.

“I felt sad about it,” she said, “I’m still here but today there’s not too many of us class members left.”

Hacker-Frost also remembers the dentist office located upstairs of the bank.

“That’s where I had my first tooth pulled!” she exclaimed.

The Opera House That Colon Forgot

 

The Opera House That Colon Forgot

 

 

From The Colon Express newspaper, July 13, 1950: “Surely this is a building of which all citizens of Colon may well be proud.”

These words were penned 52 years ago by a forgotten writer in preparing the souvenir program for the grand opening of Hill’s Opera House. The Opera House in Colon, center of social life in southern Michigan; where the Shuberts played their big New York shows as a bread between Detroit and Chicago. Memories. The Drews, the Barrymores, Fanny Brice; a host of others who were riding fame when the century was young.

“Once through the grand entrance, the auditorium impresses you with its great beauty. The front of the balcony, as well as the four private boxes, are treated in white and gold, draped in tapestries which harmonize with the beautifully frescoed walls and ceiling. These, laced by six hundred mahogany opera chairs, upholstered in pale green plush, join in producing a harmonious whole.

“Great care has been taken in heating and ventilating. The lighting is from a private gas plant on the premises, two hundred jets being used to illuminate the theatre. The wants of the players have been carefully looked after, with commodious dressing rooms, wardrobes and lavatories being located under the stage.”

It’s a ghost Opera House now, in 1950. The white and gold paint and the draperies are gone. The two hundred gas jets were later replaced with electric socket from which the bulbs are now missing. One finds on inspection that the writer of the souvenir program was overly enthusiastic about the upholstered chairs. There are actually 525 of them. The pale green plush seats are found in only the first eight rows; the telltale marks on the floor show that the eighth row was backed with a brass rail, inclosing a parquet for seating the most refined customers. The remaining seats are bare, unless you include the dust of three decades.

The stage, as roomy and deep as those in many of today’s city theaters, is but an apparition and but few pieces of the one elaborate scenery remain. The original front curtain, which was operated on a roller, now gathers dust in a corner. It is replete with advertising signs of the late nineties. Says one, “Eat Harman’s Bread – Don’t be Misled.” C. H. McKinster, drugs and groceries, told Opera House audiences about his buckthorn bark remedy: “Less Bowel Trouble In Colon!” Overhead in a corner of the fly loft are stored old rain and wind-making machines; and the remains of the old gas chandelier with its reflectors and a multitude of jets which originally hung proudly from the auditorium ceiling.

The play “On The Swaunee” opened the Opera House on February 18, 1898. The review in the weekly Colon Express went extensively into who was present and what each wore. It was a social event of top significance for it described the clothing worn by five-year-olds as well as that of their parents. Once each week or two there followed productions ordinarily seen only in large cities. Some of them are still remembered like Tess of the Storm Country; The Sqaw Man, Uncle Tom’s Cabin; To Have and To Hold. Colon audiences were thrilled with The Drunkard, The Light Eternal, Quo Vadis; and a large musical production. The Merry Widow (“every little movement has a meaning all its own”).

“The Story Of a Woman’s Bitter Victory”, advertises a 1950 motion picture, “Paid In Full”, starring Robert Cummings and Lizabeth Scott. Beautiful Miss Scott, did you know that the same play trod the boards at Hill’s Opera House on August 5, 1912? Read the 1912 advertising: “It is said to be virile, appealing and distinctly original, and to be unfolded by a set of characters that are types of real life, familiar to everyone and full of human interest.”

Marian Hill Michaelson, now teaching in a Detroit public school, recalls that she had her first date at the Opera House. “I was all of the tender age of two, Arthur Kane, who was four or five, used to come over to our house and play. He saved his pennies and one day strode up to the house and asked my pop if he could take me to a play at the Opera House.

With the same profound dignity, my father told him he would ask me, but was sure I would be happy to accept. On the appointed night, Arthur showed up in his new suit and walked down town with Mother while Dad pushed me in the baby cutter. Half of the town was out en masse to see Art and I toddle (at least I did) down the Opera House aisle.”

Some of the earliest recollections of present day Colon citizens are bound up in the Opera House. Mrs. Michaelson remembers “the excitement when we knew a famed Chicago or New York show was coming to town, and the inevitable naps we must take on those afternoons so we would stay awake to see the entire performance. Then the baths and clean underwear and the best clothes laid out on the bed. Hair curling, and spit-shine on our shoes when Mama didn’t see us. Then Dad hurrying Mother; ‘Come on, Mother, fifteen minutes to curtain time’, with frequent checking of the big gold watch. The hast dash to the Opera House, the marquee lighted with gas lamps, our outer wraps hung in the ticket office, a look in the powder room to see who was there.

“We always had the same seats so we took them, without benefit of usher. But not for long. As soon as we were allowed, we children hurried up front and around to the Boxes. And how well named! On each side of the gas footlights were cubicle that looked onto the stage, where one could get a fair idea of the play as long as the actors remained on the other half. It was a usual thing, in case the show got a little slow or the actors were bored, for them to come over and tickle our legs or pull our toes through the railing. It was usually good for a laugh from the audience.

“Between the acts we hurried backstage to stand and stare in awe at the strangers who were such fascinating characters. The villain with the handlebar mustache wasn’t half as frightening in the wings.  I remember the ladies of the show holding us on their laps and talking to us as our mothers did. And then the curtain call and we would hustle back to the Box and once more Lena Rivers or The Girl of The Golden West wasn’t the lady who held us, but a glamorous figure from the story book.”

Mystery shadows the past of the upper right box. All four boxes were designed for six occupants. Each had six chairs – excepting the upper right, which contained but one. Shortly before curtain time would listen expectantly; then the thump, thump sound, up the stairs to the balcony, and slowly forward to the lone chair in upper-right. A man, sorely crippled, supporting his body with two canes that he had himself fashioned from broom handles. Tall, black stovepipe  hat which he seldom removed. Shaggy brows over piercing black eyes; dignified beard and waxed mustache. His name was Ambrose Crane. He had a lifetime ticked to the box in upper right.

This much was known about Ambrose Crane. He lived in a tiny one-room place scarcely a block from the rear of the Opera House. In the basement of his home he raised rhubarb and experimented with a method of dehydrating the plant so that it could be preserved. He extended his rhubarb operations to one of the dark basements of the Opera House. Nothing came of this. He had a marvelous vocabulary. He was an expert penman and penned his own calling cards, which he never used. He owned a horse and cart, with which he drove to the World’s Fair in Chicago, a distance of 150 miles. Constantly around his neck was a heavy string, from the ends of which dangled two tin cans at his sides, containing food, which he ate when and where he pleased. And, he had a lifetime, exclusive lease on the Opera House Box, of upper right. How, and why? Who was Ambrose Crane?
Colon is widely known as the Magic Capital of the World. Is this the end result of interest in magic aroused on February 11, 1907, when the Opera House presented Joseffy, “the necromancer”? Joseffy’s “talking skull” is well remembered in Colon; also his “fatal hand, as astonishing experiment which exploits the theosophic theory of the fourth dimension”, as quoted from the handbills of the time. “A conception so startling in effect and so nearly approaching the supernatural as to seem miraculous. Affinity with an unseen power is such a degree that scientific minds marvel at the production.” One of the minds that marveled belonged to Monk Watson, a Colon youngster who grew up to become a leading magician and entertainer.

“Colon was quite a town in those days,” recollects Ross Lewis, who was chief usher at the Opera House. “The population was then about the same as it is now, around a thousand, but the Opera House made out town famous for a hundred miles around. We had good train service then – five or six trains a day – which made it easy for the shows to come and go. We had a good hotel, too; $1 a day or $5 a week paid for room and board at the old St. Joe House.”

Lewis remembers that the opera house maintained 6 full sets of scenery, which was in addition to the special scenery, sometimes a carload, carried by most of the big shows. Advertising was different then, with more competition for the local newspaper. Phil Wait, a Colon young man, made perilous ascension in a hot-air balloon from the muddy main street in front of the Opera House before each show. Wait made the balloon himself from muslin and local merchants contributed to the cost of maintaining this feature attraction. It drew a crowd.

Lewis recalls the old gaslights with amusement. “The acetylene plant was buried in the ground back of the Opera House. One night while a show was in progress the caretaker made his usual inspection of the plant, and he brought his kerosene lantern a little too close. There was a “boom” that could be heard for miles around as the plant exploded. And, of course, the lights immediately went out. The performance was finally completed with the aid of candles.

“The bare gas jets were of course the latest thing when the Opera House opened, but they were annoying. The house smelled of carbide gas part of the time. The jets were lighted individually – 200 of them – with tapers. After they had been burning for a time, the tips would carbon up and shoot off streams of black smoke, which eventually settled on the audience as soot.”

As a special service to the customers, the management employed Cliff Frohriep as water boy. Coca Cola was then unknown and it was Cliff’s duty to pass up and down the aisles with his tray of paper cups and water. “When I first started”, Cliff remembers, “The audience was suspicious and would have none of it. Then when they learned the water was a free service and would not cost them a cent, they really kept me busy.” It was from this suspicious beginning that Cliff graduated to his present position as leading gasoline distributor in Colon.

“Hill’s Opera House was responsible for much of the present theatrical population of Colon. Skippy and Jean Lamore, the vaudeville team, liked the town and made it their home instead of New York. Lew Dockstader of minstrel fame did likewise; also George and Mattie Kempton, of the Kempton Komedy Kompany. Harry Blackstone, the famous magician, liked

Colon so well that he purchased an entire island adjoining the town. Percy Abbott, the Australian magician, settled in Colon and started the famous magic factory.
The Opera House ticket office and cloakroom are now rooms of an apartment occupied by Ken and Marie Miller. Ken and Marie have the largest television set in Colon. From this the empty Opera House auditorium echoes often with the clatter of hoof beats and bark of the six-gun as Hopalong Cassidy performs for his 1950 audience. The old and the new. Sing no sad songs however – the Opera House really had its day!”

 

The Hill Opera House is Built 1896

Ever heard of an elegant storeroom?

HODGE PODGE

Joe Ganger

 

In April of 1896 ground was broken to begin construction of the opera house located on State Street in Colon. In case you never heard of it, before the fire in 2006, if you looked up, at the top two floors above Citizen’s Bank, you coud see it! The entrance was destroyed years ago to allow for a larger bank area. It was built by the Hill family, Elisha and sons Thomas Jefferson and Edwin Ruthven Hill. The souvenir program for opening night describes the E. Hill and Sons company as “a firm engaged in general merchandising in Colon, as early as 1851.” The E. Hill and sons bank which was on the ground floor of the building remained in the control of the family from its establishment in 1870 until after 1945.

 

 

I found a description of the opera house which reads: “A building of pressed brick which is trimmed with Marquette red sandstone. An inserted balcony in the second story brakes the facade which features heavy columns, headed with ornate carvings. Large plate glass windows enhance the entrance to the opera house . Upon entering the building an oak staircase leads to the grand entrance with the box office at the left and on the right a reception, cloak and toilet rooms. Double stairs in both directions lead the way to the large comfortable balcony.

 

 

The general beauty of the auditorium is quite impressive. Gold and white colors decorate the front of the balcony and the four private boxes. Harmonious tapestries drape these areas to match the beautifully frescoed walls and ceiling. Six hundred mahogany opera chairs are upholstered in a pale green that adds the final touch to this exquisite theater. Under the stage area are comfortable dressing rooms with wardrobes and lavatories. The third floor holds additional wardrobes, dressing rooms, toilets and lavatories. Nothing was overlooked for the comfort and convenience of the patrons and artists. The ground floor of the building is divided with the western portion arranged for an elegant storeroom and the eastern area reserved for the Exchange Bank. The rear portion of this level is for private apartments ‘with all the modern sanitary appliances’.”

 

Well, that is the nice sounding side. Some two hundred gas jets illuminated the theater and were fed by a private gas plant in the basement of the building.

 

Ross Lewis, chief usher at the Opera House recalls the gas lights with amusement: “One night while a show was in progress, the caretaker made his usual inspection of the plant and he brought the kerosene a little too close, and there was an explosion that could be heard for miles around as the plant blew up. Of course, the lights went out., and the play continued with candlelight. The bare jets were the latest thing when the opera house opened but they were annoying. The house smelled of carbide gas part of the time. The jets were lighted individually – 200 of them – with tapers. After they had burned for a time the tips would carbon up and shoot off streams of black smoke which settled on the audience as soot.”

 

Well, Hill’s Opera House opened with a flourish on November 1, 1897 with an operetta called “The Merry Milkmaids”.  Sharon Beth Wyrembelski wrote a master’s thesis on the Hill Opera House. Her paper contains a few quotes from newspapers of the time: “On the night of the opening play, Mrs. Hill, then in her eighty-eighth year, was able to attend. As she leaned upon the arm of her son, Thomas Jefferson, who assisted her to enter their box, she was greeted with cheers by the audience, many of whom had known and honored her for over a half century, and by whom she is still spoken of as being the life of every social gathering which she attended.”

 

The review of the February 1898 play “On The Swanee” described those present and even their apparel. “It was a social event of top significance for it described the clothing worn by the 5 year olds as well as that of their parents”.  From Sharon’s thesis: “Mr. Robert Tenney, during a personal interview on May 5, 1986, recalls that the Opera House was always well attended in his day and that his mother (Amelia Hill) remarked to him often about the wonderful productions and gratifying audiences.”  Robert Tenny was the grandson of Susan (Susie) and Edwin Hill. They lived in the large house that was located where the Sturgis Bank and Trust now stands. Pictures of the house are displayed in the lobby. Ross Lewis, chief usher at the Opera House recalls, “We had a good train service then – five or six trains a day which made it easy for shows to come and go”. Of course Colon also had an additional feature for stopovers in the hotel, the St. Joe House, which offered room and board for $5.00 per week. When this hotel burned, the Colon Township Library was built on the location.

 

After World War II ended in 1945 the Opera House fell into disuse, except for an occasional high school graduation ceremony and a trickle of magic shows given by Harry Blackstone, Percy Abbott, and Monk Watson. Finally, in 1964, when the first-floor bank was remodeled the oak staircase leading to the second floor was removed and the Opera House was sealed off. The seating capacity is frequently quoted as 600, but it is really 500. 100 chairs could be set up in the lecture room, or ballroom. Did they count those? A 1903 production included a live horse onstage. Now, how did they get the horse to go up/down the stairs? The Colon Historical Society has saved a few items from the glory days of the Opera House, including the original gas chandelier.

There was a sad ending in 2006.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hill Opera House, Tom Thinnes

Hill Opera House

 

 

From Marquee Magazine, by Tom Thinnes, Kalamazoo Gazette, COLON, Michigan – The 81-year-old Hill Opera House, being restored to its heyday when it spotlighted the greats of the world of magic, is open for public tours.

One of the community’s most historic buildings, the old opera house is actually the upper two floors of the Colon Citizens State Bank. After being sealed up for 14 years, the opera house started taking on some new trappings when some local citizens began a restoration effort.

The tours are being offered to give interested persons a chance to sample Colon’s history and unique place in the world of show business. In its prime, the Hill Opera House was the showcase for the magical talents of Harry Blackstone Sr., Harry Houdini and Percy Abbott, the founder of the company that still produces magic contraptions and tricks in this village today.

Opened in 1898, the theater-bank building was built by the Elisha Hill family, which has played a leadership role in the community for many years.

 

 

The opera house had seating for 450 patrons, including a horseshoe balcony which could handle 100 persons. The plush, padded seats in the front of the theater were separated by a long brass rail from the cheaper wooden box seats to the back. There were four white-and-gold private boxes looming over the 1,000 square foot stage.

 

 

 

For many years, The Great Blackstone tried out his new tricks at the opera house before taking them on the road to places like new York, London and Paris.

Then in the years after World War II, the theater fell into disuse, except for an occasional high school graduation ceremony.

In 1964, when the bank on the first floor of the building was remodeled, the great oak staircase leading up to the theater was removed and the opera house was left to gather dust. The restoration effort was launched last spring.

 

 

In these views of the Opera House interior one can note the astounding number of architectural features in a room so small. The use of plaster rosettes with light bulbs around the edges of the balcony, the mural over the proscenium, and those FOUR boxes!

Obviously the HILL OPERA HOUSE was truly first class for its day.

Hill Opera House

 

From The Colon Express newspaper, August 11, 1981: “Hill Opera House is no longer in use, but on center stage are the memories of many performers.

Located on State Street on the second and third floor above Citizens State Bank, the opera house was a popular stopping place for companies traveling between Chicago and Detroit.

Local resident Charles Williams remembers 1912, when he was in his teens and he and friends peddled handbills to local stores. The handbills described actors and told the price.

In turn, they earned their admission. Side balcony seats cost 25 cents; front balcony, 50 cents; and the main floor, 75 cents and $1. The $1 fee guaranteed soft plush seats roped off with a brass railing. Ross Lewis was ticket taker.

“I always sat in the balcony.” Williams said with a chuckle. “I never could afford to sit in the section reserved for the rich people.”

Harry Blackstone Sr. often tried out his acts at the opera house before taking them on the road. Another company performing there included Kempton Comedy Kompany, which contained several local residents.

“I always had a passion for live acting,” Williams related, “I remember the play ‘Rip Van Winkle’ and “Trail of the Lonesome Pine.’

“One thing that always fascinated me was the curtain on the stage that had all the advertisements from local merchants.”

Williams said high school shows and minstrel shows also were performed.

He remembers Memorial Day in particular.

“The street was then a dirt road and the fourth and fifth graders were dressed in their best attire. We walked from the elementary school, which was then the old high school on State Street, to Lakeside Cemetery on Farrand Road (about four miles round trip).

“Upon returning to the village, we went to the Hill Opera House where we sat for 45 minutes listening to the Memorial Day address.

Williams said he remembers another day at the opera house. “My graduation in 1925 was held in the opera house,” he said. Williams was salutatorian and gave the speech.

Exercises were conducted there until the new high school was built and the ceremony was transferred to that location on Dallas Street.”

 

The Hill Opera House was destroyed by fire in 2006.