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The Manchester Opera House — A golden age of theater

July 28. 2014 10:15PM

The presentation of the dramatic play “Richelieu: Or the Conspiracy” at the new Manchester Opera House in January 1881 was the beginning of a golden age of live theater in Manchester that would last for more than two decades. Most of the productions at the Opera House were staged by traveling troupes that made the circuit from playhouse to playhouse along the rail lines.

Repertory companies set up shop in the Opera House, bringing their scenery, costumes, props, and musical instruments with them. For example, the Bennett and Moulton Company and its orchestra came for two weeks in December 1898. The troupe presented 13 different plays, alternating in matinee and evening performances, all with the same actors. Some of the shows presented on the large stage featured special mechanical and sound effects that were guaranteed to attract ticket buyers. For example, for a melodramatric spectacle called “Voyagers in Southern Seas” the audience was thrilled by a dramatic earthquake, a flying condor, and the appearance of a giant whale.

Manchester Opera House manager Edward W. Harrington, Jr., was able to book some of the most famous performers in America, including the celebrated tragedian Edwin Booth, the brother of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth. In 1885 Booth played Iago in Shakespeare’s “Othello” in Manchester. Other actors who were equally well-known in this era (but forgotten today) also performed at the Opera House. This included the comedian Joseph Jefferson, who appeared on the Manchester stage in 1884 in the title role in “Rip Van Winkle,” his most famous character part. In late 1898 the husband and wife team of Corse Payson and Etta Reed and their repertory company performed several plays at the Opera House. Etta was both a greatly admired actress, and an influential style setter. After one of her performances, she invited the ladies of the audience to have tea with her backstage. The women were thrilled to meet this celebrity, and to have a chance to take a close look at her fashionable dress, hat, accessories, and cosmetics.

In addition to plays — both tragic and comic — the Opera House also presented serious and light operas, concerts of classical and popular music, and variety shows. This last category included minstrel shows, which often had white actors performing comedy skits and musical numbers in blackface. These performers were sometimes called “burnt cork artists.” These shows would, of course, be considered racist today. One of these troupes was Johnson & Slavin’s Refined Minstrels, who performed their “White House Lawn Serenade” in the Opera House in 1887. The theatre also presented other types of variety shows, including combinations of comics, singing teams, magicians, and jig dancers. At least two entertaining programs featured several trained horses as the main stars.

In 1899 the Opera House’s audience enjoyed an appearance by the Irish-American boxer Tom Sharkey, the heavyweight champion of the world, and his vaudeville company. The show included a farcical play, comedy sketch artists, musical numbers, and a trick bicycle act. The evening ended with “The Marvelous Marvel, Tom Sharkey” emerging onto the stage where he showed off his impressive physique.

Manchester was a city in love with music. The Manchester Opera House presented several operas, including Bizet’s “Carmen” in 1896, with prima donna Susie Kirwin in the lead.Another well-known operatic soprano who performed at the Opera House was Clara Louise Kellogg. In 1891 she presented a “Grand Concert” of classical and popular songs, accompanied by other accomplished singers and musicians. In 1886 the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company from Britain entertained the audience with Gilbert and Sullivan’s light opera “The Mikado.” One of the greatest musical performances on the Manchester Opera House’s stage was the 1897 concert by renowned composer and conductor John Philip Sousa, who was called “The March King,” and his band.

The theatre also presented local productions that showcased the wealth of talent available in Manchester. This included a hastily organized benefit concert on May 2, 1906 that raised money for the unfortunate victims of the San Francisco earthquake and fire that had occurred on April 18, only a few days before. Female singers, musicians. and dancers performed, and Miss Euphemia Durgin presented a dramatic reading suited to the occasion.

Next Week: The genesis of Manchester’s Opera House Block. .

Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester. E-mail her at

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