*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.
Long ago, before there were cinema multiplexes and streaming video services, people enjoyed live entertainment at theatres and auditoriums, often luxuriously appointed venues. Evansville had its share of these, so let’s peek at how late 19th century folks entertained themselves.
Evansville’s first theatre opened in 1852, on 1st Street, between Sycamore and Vine Streets. It was called Apollo Hall, but by 1860 it was known as Mozart Hall. Mozart Hall is probably best known locally for the events of January 7, 1861, at a New Year’s ball. “During the evening, two brothers from a prominent family — Robert M. Evans and John Paul Evans, grandsons of the late Colonel Robert Evans for whom the growing city was named — entered into a raucous argument over unknown issues, but witnesses admitted both were in a serious state of drunkenness. As the disagreement heated, both men threw punches and then drew guns. The other party guests hid behind pillars and doorways. Like a scene from a Western movie, the brothers fired 15 shots. John Paul was shot in the head and died instantly, but not before he had lodged two bullets in Robert’s chest and stomach. The shots killed him 20 minutes after impact. A stray shot slew 6-year-old Solomon Gumberts, the son of a prominent family. Someone ran to the Evans home to alert a soon-to-be-broken-hearted mother, Saleta Evans, who rushed to the scene.”
In 1868, the Golden Troupe (a company of actors of whom the nucleus was the six members of the Golden family) purchased Mozart Hall, remodeled it, and renamed it Metropolitan. If you’re local and/or familiar with New Harmony, you may recognize that name as associated with Thrall’s Opera House, a venue they purchased some 20 years later. The youngest Golden, Frances, is said to have made her theatrical debut when her mother carried her on stage in her arms. Frances, also known as Fannie, entertained World War I troops with the YMCA.
Mozart Hall/the Metropolitan was destroyed by fire in 1882.
Back to that grieving mother, Saleta Evans–given the influence of alcohol on her sons’ deaths, she devoted her life to temperance. In 1878/1879 she built Evans Hall and gave it to the city. Located on the corner of 5th Street and Locust Street, it was dedicated to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
From the time it was built until the construction of the Coliseum (1917), this was the largest venue in the city. It seated 800 on the ground floor and 250 more in the balcony. Lectures, concerts, plays, dances, political rallies, and even roller skating was held here. President Theodore Roosevelt was but one of the famous people who appeared in Evans Hall. It gradually deteriorated until it was unsafe, and in 1930, this structure was razed to build what was then Central Library, now the Children’s Museum of Evansville (CMoE).
The first “real” theatre was the Opera House at 1st and Locust Streets. It opened September 1868 and was gutted by fire in 1891. It was rebuilt and renamed The People’s, later called the Orpheum. It was again destroyed by fire in 1917.
The Little Bijou was a vaudevillian theatre that opened in 1906 at 5th and Locust Streets. Two years later it was renamed Majestic. This was not a new construction, having taken over the old Igleheart Mills which was built in 1856, shown below. It had seen better days and was sometimes called “The Louse” because of all the bedbugs!! It was razed in 1909 and a new theatre built at this location and named the New Majestic. It was gutted by fire in the 1920’s and restored, was bought by the Loew’s chain circa 1965, closed in 1973 and was razed in 1974.
The Opera House may have been the first “real” theatre, but in October 1889 the crème de la crème opened—the Grand Opera House. Built by the Business Men’s Association, this was one of the first public buildings with electric lights.
“For more than 70 years, the Grand Theater (known historically as the Grand Opera House) stood proudly on Sycamore Street near Third Street. When it opened in the fall of 1889, the 1,700-seat theater rivaled the most lavish in larger cities, with its domed ceiling, gigantic chandelier, three tiers of boxes and two balconies. Early opera performances later gave way to vaudeville acts. In 1929, the first talking movie was introduced and by the 1930, the Grand was regularly featuring motion pictures. Through the years, the theater also was the venue for a variety of community events. It closed its doors in 1962 and was soon razed.” Quotation from historicevansville.com
The Cadick Theatre was to have been built at the corner of 3rd and Sycamore Streets, but the Great Depression struck, and construction never made it past the first floor. In 1937, the Greyhound Bus Station (now the BruBurger Bar) was built atop the theatre’s foundation.
Today’s concert, theatre, and movie venues are wonderful, but almost none of them are so storied or so elegant as these, where being in the building itself was part of the entertainment package. In a later blog, we’ll look at a local theatre from “back in the day” that is still in use, and at one that is in the process of revitalization.
Willard Library’s online Photography Gallery
MSS 004—Kenneth McCutchan Collection