Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Grand Opera House - 1880


On April 19, 1880, an article appeared in the Hamilton Spectator which contained news that theatergoers in the city welcomed enthusiastically.
Under the headline, “New Opera House : A Few Definite Facts About It,” the reporter from the Spectator confirmed rumours that Hamilton would soon have a new and large theatre, and where that new theatre building would be located : “the site will not be, as stated by our contemporary a few days ago, on the corner of Hughson and Rebecca streets, but on the corner of James and gore streets, where the temperance tent formerly stood.”
The article went on to state that the land had been purchased for $5,800 and that it was proposed to erect “a building of which the city may be proud.” The total cost of the project was estimated to be in the neighbourhood of $25,000.
On Saturday, April 24, 1880, a meeting took place in the offices of Hamilton lawyers Mackelcan, Gibson and Bell. The directors of the new theatre project, Messrs. Frank Mackelcan, Edward Mitchell, C. M. Counsell, R. A. Lucas and J. R. Rainey, gathered to examine the architectural plans submitted for their approval.
The plans of Toronto architect, George H. Lalor were the choice of the directors. Lalor had also designed the Grand Opera House in Toronto, and his vision for Hamilton’s Grand Opera House were similar in nature.
The proposed Hamilton theatre would be able to seat 1200 persons, and was so laid out that, despite that many people being inside the hall, the building could be evacuated within five minutes in case of emergency.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Architect Lalor was give instructions to proceed at once with the completion of his plans and o begin to award contracts for the building’s construction.
Less than a month later, on May 17, 1880, Lalor’s plans and construction specifications were received at the law office of Mr. Mackelcan. In the next day’s Spectator, some specifics of Lalor’s plans were detailed : “the plans show that the front, which will be on James street, will be a combination of Gothic and Eastlake, and entirely different to anything now in the city. The front will be two stories in height, with Mansard roof, surmounted by an iron casting, with a centre tower and two smaller elevations, one upon either side, also surmounted with iron crestings.”
As part of the Grand Opera House project, there were to be storefronts, facing James street, included in the plans : “the stores will be handsomely fitted up, having offices in the rear, also, stairways leading to dwelling apartments above, consisting of a parlor, dining room and kitchen on the second floor, and three bedrooms under the mansard roof.”
On the Gore street side, the building had a depth of 154 feet. On that side, there was a private entrance, a gallery exit, a restaurant with two wine rooms, a room suitable for a shop or office which led to another room to be used as a board room for the Grand Opera House company, a stage entrance and a scene room with a high narrow doorway for the moving in and out of scenery.
Passing through the James street entrance, there was to be a ticket booth placed on the left side of the way to the main vestibule. On the left of the vestibule, a stairway led to reserved seats in the gallery, while on the right of the vestibule led to the rear portion of the gallery.
Beyond the vestibule was a lobby, from which patrons could enter the theatre by one of the three large doorways. Also, in lobby were doors leading to the retiring rooms.
Within the theatre auditorium, the arrangement of seating was complex, but extremely well-considered : “on entering the theatre by the centre passage, it will be observed that it narrows as it approaches the stage, a very good arrangement, and the incline of the floor is not broken by steps. The seats are arranged in a circular form, excepting the orchestra chairs, which will be ranged in straight rows. The orchestra chairs, with three rows of seats, upholstered outside of a circular rail, will be furnished with folding chairs, upholstered in crimson rep. These will constitute the highest priced seats. In the rear of these will be six rows of sofa seats, upholstered in crimson rep, with dividing arms of iron. In the gallery, the first two rows will be cushioned sofa seats, which will be divided from cheap gallery seats in rear by a partition and passage. The occupants of the cheap gallery seats will make their exit by way of Gore street, thus preventing any annoyance or inconvenience by the crowding of the other portion of the audience who will go out by the grand entrance.”
The Lalor plans also called for four proscenium boxes in the auditorium, two on either side of the stage, one above the other. These proscenium boxes were to be richly furnished and hung with crimson curtains.
The illumination of the theatre was to be done by means of a large number of gas jets, under a sunlight reflector, with side and other lights.
The major statistics of Hamilton’s Grand Opera House were that it would be 75 feet in length, exclusive of the stage, and 55 feet in width. The seating capacity would be as requested in the 1200 range.
As the construction of the Grand Opera House was nearing completion, there was some disappointment expressed regarding the external appearance of the building.
A Spectator article attempted to address those concerns as follows : “of the exterior of the building, in its present, unfinished state, it is not necessary here to say much. Fault has been found with its height, the style of its architecture, and the material of which it is built, but be that as it may, if any citizen may have formed his opinion of the Opera House on the alleged shortcomings of its exterior architecture, a genuine and most pleasant surprise awaits the citizen upon his first visit to the interior of the building. Here, no expense has been spared to make it complete in every respect. The best artists and artisans in their respective lines were engaged, the most modern and improved designs were adopted, and the result is the handsomest, most comfortable, best fitted, coziest and most generally excellent opera house in the Dominion, and one that compares very favourably with the most modern theatres in North America.”
For the interior, artistic painting of the plaster, the fresco artist hired was Leon H. Lempert, from Rochester, New York.
The Spectator carried the following detailed description of the fresco work as seen by its reporter during his tour of the nearly completed Grand Opera House : “the ceiling is done in a medieval pattern, principally in the decorative flat styles, with some semi-relief and some relief painting about the sunlight, which constitutes a centre for beautifully tinted radiating panels done in imitation of tapestry. Crimson and gold panels of most elegant pattern give variety to a beautifully harmonized ceiling. The walls are tinted, with a rich border above and below, and every portion displays skilful manipulation of the artist’s brush, and a perfect eye for the harmonization of color by gaslight. The proscenium arch shows, in the centre, a large and nicely painted Dominion coat of arms, flanked on either side by cartoons representing Painting, the Drama, Music and Sculpture. The proscenium border is frescoed in the Queen Anne style. The gas brackets and pendants are of graceful design, and the whole appearance of the auditorium is pleasing in the extreme.”
As regards the stage of the Grand Opera House itself, it was 25 ½ feet deep, and 55 feet wide between the side walls, enough room the Spectator reporter “to handle the largest New York scenes, and no traveling company will be necessitated to make an apology for the non-appearance of scenery on account of the smallness of the stage.”
As for the curtain, the Spec man felt it was in itself a notable work of art, “the scene is a view of Constantinople and the Golden Horn, and contains all the elements for a first class curtain – foliage, figures and fountain in the foreground, water and architecture.”
The Hamilton Grand  Opera House was opened for business on Monday, November 29, 1880. The theatre was full to capacity, if not somewhat beyond capacity.
The assembled citizens were all interested and somewhat excited to see the interior of the new theatre for the first time.
However, as noted in the Spectator account of the evening, there was a section of the crowd that was more boisterous than others :”some of the gods made a reckless attempt to be noisy; but, the management put its foot down firmly, and gave the irrepressible small boy and rude hobble-de-hoy to understand that henceforth, when they visit the Grand Opera House, they must behave themselves.”
On the rising of the curtain, Theatre Manager J. R. Spackman appeared at the footlights.
After thanking the audience for their attendance, Spackman introduced Hamilton Mayor O’Reilly who said :
“Ladies and gentlemen – At the request of the Managing Committee of the Grand Opera House Company, I propose to say a few words to you in respect of our beautiful hall – although anything I say will be more in the nature of garnishing to the dish – of conventional propriety rather than of real import. Our citizens have long felt the want of such a theatre as this; many first class artists have passed Hamilton by because of its lack in the matter of a good theatre, and a few public-spirited gentlemen of the city formed themselves into a company, and in an almost miraculously short space of time have succeeded in erecting this beautiful hall. While all the gentlemen connected with the scheme are entitled to great credit, I must refer to Mr. Henry Mackelcan, who has given much attention to the erection of the hall, and who succeeded in completing it in all its details, having spared no pains to secure all the modern conveniences for comfort. The safety of the audience has been well looked after, there being no less than five exits from the hall. It is fortunate that Mr. Spackman has been chosen as manager, as that gentleman has had great experience and has a thorough knowledge of the various artists in the profession, and he promises to secure none but the first class companies. The character of the gentlemen connected with the management is a sufficient guarantee of the character of the entertainments to be presented here, and citizens can rely upon the fact that they will always be such as they can bring their wives and families to see. I must congratulate the management upon the audience present to witness the opening, and consider it a guarantee of future success. I also congratulate them upon having been able to get the building completed in a little over two months. The contractors have completed all their undertakings, and the gentlemen of the committee have succeeded in overcoming all difficulties. I may say, in the language of the day, that they have no more rivers to cross. And now, ladies and gentlemen, I will leave you to the enjoyment of The Brook, which I know you are impatient to see. (Applause)”
The Spectator reporter, and theatre critic for the night, considered that The Brook was an inspired choice as the first play to be given at Hamilton’s Grand Opera House. He wrote that play provided “two hours and a half of such rare fun, bubbling wit, sparkling vocalism, excellent acting and general excellence as it is rarely one’s lot to encounter. The dramatis personae are not many; but they are artists every one, and a smoothly running, outrageously laughable, and most extraordinary potpourri of artistically interwoven funny sayings and funnier doings, relieved by excellent singing and a bit of fine dramatism here and there, is the enjoyable result.”

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