From the very first night, the Grand Old Lady was a colossal success.
As a local historian, most of my writings and speaking engagements concern the bawdy, seedy side of Peoria, Illinois, circa 1845 to 1950. Seems many 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 1880s, 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 it. 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 “blue bloods” was the building being erected just across the street from the courthouse. 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. There were gripes among some citizens 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 Peorians, led by Mr. Baldwin, easily raised the money and now the building was rising up, right there on Hamilton Boulevard.
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. People passing by stood around talking and gawking, watching the progress, anticipating the opening night festivities.
Peoria’s New Jewel
The moment dawn began to brighten that gorgeous morning of September 7, 1882, eager workers swarmed over the new building. Inspectors, carpenters and gas-lighting 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 Grand 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 it stood 60 feet high, with twin towers on the roof soaring to the sky. Four glass and oak doors greeted the visitors, and upon entering the building, the interior view was breathtaking. Two sweeping staircases, left and right, with hidden, subdued lighting beckoned the visitor to come forward. Frescos and decorative paintings added to the ambience as the opera patron ascended the plush, carpeted steps.
Patrons were struck by the colors, the vividly blended fineries of the drapes and the warmly painted walls. Upon entering 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 edges. Of course, they were draped for privacy and could be converted to four large boxes, if the need arose.
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, also known as limelight (And here lies the origin of the phrase “in the 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 residents: “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, 600 lucky ticket holders could be seated comfortably, with the boxes accommodating another 50 in seclusion.
The Night of Nights
Throughout the day of September 7, 1882, it appeared that all the activity in the city revolved around the majestic new building on Hamilton Boulevard. By six that evening, folks from all walks of life gathered to watch the parade of wealthy folks arrive for opening night. Inside the building, some workers were still putting finishing touches on parts of the building, as the 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, 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 front 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 beasts that the local men called “fancy plow horses.” The 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 staring. The men wore high hats with dark, fashionable suits, and many of them carried walking sticks bedecked with colorful stones. Some gentlemen even waved at the crowd as they made the slow walk up to the theatre’s entrance.
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 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 gala was listed in the paper. Excitement mounted as the first-nighters talked among themselves. Suddenly, there was silence. The colorful curtains glided open, revealing two dozen men and women on the stage. Mr. L.L. Day stepped forward to welcome the packed house. He introduced the people with him, including Governor Cullom 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, the Peoria-born 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 exciting events coming from Miss Abbott—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 opening night raised $8,500, and of that, $5,850 went to the theatrical company. On Friday evening, the opera Lilly of Blarney wowed the patrons, many of whom had tickets for all three nights. On Saturday evening, Bellini’s immortal La Sonnambula 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 another were performed on her magnificent stage. One critic said of the opera house, “She was a meeting place for cabbages and kings.” Famous personalities like Edward Thomas Booth and other internationally-known acts performed 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 Opera House. Sadly, by the time the inadequately equipped firefighters arrived, Peoria’s most magnificent structure was beyond saving.
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 Opera House, a beautiful place that lasted through the Gay ‘90s and into the 20th century, right here in our little old town. She’s gone, but the memory of the Grand Old Lady’s beauty faintly lingers to this day. a&s
Norm Kelly is an author and Peoria historian. His books are available in the Peoria library. He welcomes your questions and comments at [email protected].