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Recalling Austin’s opera house

In January, a fire destroyed several buildings in the 400 block of North Main Street.

Following the blaze, people began to reminisce about what used to be in that block, and the old opera house was mentioned.

But no one seemed to remember it. Why? Because it had been gone for more than 100 years.

When people started talking about the store fronts and stores in that block, they couldn’t visualize an opera house being there, let alone in Austin so long ago. There was a stone marker, however, saying it was built in the late 1800s.

Well, it seems that prior to that date, there had been stores along Main Street and, in one of them, there was a place called Jones Hall. This building was enlarged, remodeled and changed into the Austin Opera House.

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It was not used solely for operas but also political rallies, lectures, musical presentations by bands, minstrel shows and all manner of dramas.

Famed American composer and conductor John Philip Sousa’s band played here, and, as rumor has it, he gave a short concert from the opera house’s balcony. Some reference to a group called the Cherry Sisters was also on the program.

"Romeo and Juliet" and "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" were two of the titles put on by the stock companies that presented the programs that were familiar to me, as was the name of Ernest Seton Thompson/Ernest Thomas Seton, who presented a wild animal lecture.

Many "Gay Nineties" stage presentations and melodramas also were shared.

These stock companies would come in and present shows for a week at a time along with lotteries and prizes of furniture and dishes. One of the favorites was Frank E. Long, whose leading lady was Austin native Nana Sullivan.

Apparently, one of the productions had been advertised as a very high-class musical attraction, and large numbers of people came to see it. "The Irish Pawnbroker," but it turned out to be a risqué burlesque, leading many of the wives to escort their husbands out of the theater after the first act’s curtain.

There were magic lantern shows that attracted the youngsters of the area because they got a free bag of candy with their admission.

Then came some traveling groups that presented some of the first motion-picture attractions before regular movie theaters were built in Austin.

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In 1904, came the bad news.

Even though the opera house had withstood the elements, the city council had invited a state inspector to come down and examine the buildings in Austin, including all assembly halls, hotels and the opera house. There had been questions about the safety of the buildings — especially the opera house.

The inspector recommended at least six areas in the building that needed much work done on them.

Owners of the opera house decided the cost of bringing the building up to code would be very costly and involve taking off one of the rentable store properties for the opera house’s use. They decided they had enough of "show business," and, with the number of changes that had to be made, they would offer the business to someone else.

But there were no takers, and future bookings were canceled.

Eventually the structure was given a new, modernized storefront, the squat tower was razed, and all traces of the old cultural and social center of Austin were turned into business offices.

Polly Jelinek writes on local history on Saturdays for the Austin Post-Bulletin.

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