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!”