Romance, mystery, arson at the Opera House

The Opera House and VanAlstyn’s Department Store are pictured here, circa 1913. The Masonic Square Mall on Washington Streets now stands there.

By Larry Chabot

In the 19th century, so-called “opera houses” were opening in almost every decent-sized city. Seldom, if ever, did they ever present an actual opera. The name was often an upscale cover for an otherwise ordinary venue, in an attempt to make them acceptable to those who shunned commonplace theaters.

Marquette had an opera house, too, on Washington Street between Third and Fourth, a first class place from the get-go. It’s 900 plush seats were fashioned after those in New York’s Madison Square Garden theater. Audiences were entertained by famous performers from around the world (including actual operas) in a place of both romance and mystery. Sadly, its rather short life ended in a controversial ball of fire.

Author Tyler Tichelaar has good feelings for a building he never saw. “Sometime in the late 1920s,” he wrote, “my grandfather, Lester White, decided to propose to my grandmother, Grace Molby. The event occurred at the Marquette Opera House. My grandmother had a friend with her as a chaperone. Although religious differences prevented them from getting married until 1934, the Opera House was the place where their courtship and pending nuptials were confirmed. I doubt a more romantic place existed in Marquette for my grandparents to pledge their love.”

Marquette pioneers Peter White and John Longyear led a group of investors who felt their growing city deserved a theater for finer entertainment. Effusive reports describe a handsome exterior of native brownstone, sandstone and brick. The dazzling interior was the equal of any in the nation. An Italian Renaissance theme showcased elaborate boxes for the well-to-do, frescoes with traditional theatrical figures and a stunning arch in front of a drop curtain graced with a painted scene of an Italian countryside.

In her article in Marquette at 150, Angela Johnson noted that the building opened in 1892 after a two-year construction period, hailed as the finest north of Milwaukee. Its 95-foot front along Washington Street housed four retail shops on the first floor, offices on the second, and a third floor leased by the Masonic order. The stage, which had three trap doors in the floor through which performers could magically appear or disappear, was 36 feet wide and 62 feet high to the roof, held 13 complete stage settings and several different drop curtains. Ten dressing rooms completed the amenities.

At last: opening night! In one of his colorful radio broadcasts, Kenyon Boyer described a three-day grand opening celebration held from February 8 to 10, 1892. Many in the packed audience wore their finest dress clothing, and a large number of patrons had come by train from Ishpeming and Negaunee. After a welcoming speech by Marquette mayor John Longyear, nationally-known entertainer Effie Essler and her company performed several acts for the happy crowd. Angela Johnson pegged it as “one of the greatest social events in Marquette.”

As a fundraiser, spirited auctions were conducted for box seats (which went for as much as $130) and general seating ($3.50). Kenyon Boyer reported that “many townspeople would not buy stock, and laughed at the idea of the Opera House. The Mining Journal had a stinging article condemning the hoodoos, mossbacks and kickers for their attitude.”

During opening week, the stage hosted plays, a traveling opera company, comedians, an orchestra and provocative monologues like “How Shall We Keep Our Wives Home in the Evenings?” In following years, stock companies often stayed for a week, with different shows each night. Patrons especially enjoyed the filmed travelogues, which began running in 1910 in front of sellout crowds. Famous performers, booked through a major midwest circuit, played the Marquette venue, like Lillian Russell, Lon Chaney, W.C. Fields, John Philip Sousa and his rousing band, and cowboy star William S. Hart, who rode his pony up the front steps while appearing here in The Virginian.

A typical audience included many youngsters. Kenyon Boyer explained how noisy kids in the balcony were handled: “Marquette’s famous policeman, Denny Hogan, always would appear, rap his billy club on the railing and maintain perfect order during the show.”

In 1897, five years after its debut, with financial hard times squeezing the business, the Opera House was offered at a public auction. The only bidders were founders Peter White and John Longyear, who paid $50,000 for the package. In 1927, the business was sold to the Masons, who changed the name to the Masonic Building. Stage and film shows continued for a while, but competition from nearby movie theaters cut into attendance and led to its closing. The final program on July 31, 1928 featured stage and screen star Belle Bennett in her production of The Sporting Age.

In 1950, Mining Journal editor Ken Lowe came across a dusty scrapbook in the nearby Delft Theater which contained a treasure trove of Opera House memorabilia, including original printed programs. A feature story on his findings appeared in his newspaper on June 3, 1950. Among the discovered items was the first check issued by the opera company, signed by Peter White himself and payable to the Mining Journal for advertising. The check had been framed and displayed on an office wall in the Delft.

The interior of the Opera House, circa 1895.

The ultimate fate of the Marquette Opera House was as dramatic as some of the performances seen on its stage. The immediate cause of its demise was a devastating fire, but the trigger incident may have been the coverup of an embezzlement, which took down the building, a church treasurer and a bishop.

In his book So Cold A Sky, Karl Bohnak discussed the January 25, 1938 fire which destroyed the Opera House building.

“The blaze was first reported by newspaper boys on their way to deliver the morning paper,” he wrote, “and apparently originated in the Masonic Temple and was thought by many to have started suspiciously. The treasurer of the Masonic Temple, who was also the treasurer of the Episcopal Church in town, had been accused, along with the bishop of the Episcopal Church, of misappropriating church funds.”

Author Tyler Tichelaar went into more detail, citing True Magazine, Time Magazine, and Chicago Tribune reports on the church’s financial problems, claiming treasurer A.K. Miller had taken $99,000 in church money and lost it on stock market speculation. He admitted his theft to his bishop, Hayward Ablewhite, but threatened to take his own life if he were exposed.

“Bishop Ablewhite sought out an investment counselor … to help rebuild the church’s lost savings,” Tichelaar wrote. “[He] suggested nightclubs would be a good investment. Soon, Bishop Ablewhite had decided to buy his own little nightclub, the income from which would be used to replace the missing church funds. Gradually, the secret leaked out to the bishop’s congregation.”

With treasurer Miller’s office being in the Masonic building, home of the Opera House, speculation centered on whether he set the fire to destroy evidence of embezzlement, or if the fire conveniently did the job for him. When Miller’s safe was found ajar and all of its contents burned, suspicions changed to accusations. Soon after, it was discovered that church funds were missing.

Prosecuting attorney John Voelker formed a grand jury, which found the bishop guilty as an accessory to embezzlement and sentenced him to prison for up to 10 years. Released after nine months, the bishop accepted a job at a Ford factory offered to him by his friend Henry Ford. The errant treasurer, A.K. Miller, was never questioned about his actions or tried for his crime because he died of a heart attack on a Marquette street shortly after the scandal broke.

After the fire, the site was occupied by a rebuilt Masonic Temple, now called the Masonic Square Mall. Historical materials on the Opera House can be found at the Marquette Regional History Center, Peter White Public Library and in Jack Deo’s View of the Past archives. Sifting through the memorabilia, one can only guess at the grandeur and mystique of the Marquette Opera House.

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