Marquette’s Opera House
The Marquette Opera House was a stately edifice, the grandest in the Queen City’s downtown. The building had been constructed in 1892 at the instigation of the city’s greatest benefactors, Peter White and John Longyear. The foundation was built of Anna River brick and native Marquette brownstone. The front entrance had a Romanesque arch through which the city’s residents passed in their most elegant habiliments. While the building also housed a storefront and a Masonic Hall, the theatre was the building’s gem. The interior reflected the height of the Italian Renaissance, while the proscenium arch served as gateway to the grandest scenes ever played on a Marquette stage. Ornate boxes filled the walls, and in one such princely seat, Beth found herself seated between her lover and her annoying cousin.
First Thelma commented about the comfortable seat. Then she fretted over how well she could see the stage. Next she listed the names of everyone in the theatre whom she knew, and since the theatre could hold up to one thousand people, and almost everyone in Marquette knew everyone else, this recital lasted until the lights dimmed and the orchestra began to play.
Beth hoped Thelma would keep her mouth shut during the performance. She vowed she would never forgive her mother for sending Thelma as her chaperone. But what did it matter? Henry clearly had no intentions tonight of asking her to—
He reached over to take her hand. Beth hoped Thelma would not notice.
— The Queen City
Of all Marquette’s grand old buildings that were gone before my time, the Marquette Opera House is the one I wish I had seen and the one for which I feel most fond because of its role in my family’s history as well as its sensationally tragic end.
My grandparents’ courtship was as intriguing a story as any to me. Their religious differences inspired two marriage problems in my novels, first when I wrote The Only Thing That Lasts where Robert’s Grandma and Mr. Carter do not marry in their youth because she is Catholic and he a Southern Baptist, and later in The Queen City when Henry and Beth, based loosely on my grandparents, have a long engagement.
Despite the religion issue, my grandpa decided to propose to my grandmother. The event occurred at the Marquette Opera House sometime in the late 1920s. My grandmother, her parents being overprotective, had a friend with her as chaperone, although hopefully the friend was not as annoying as Beth’s talkative cousin, Thelma. Although the religious differences would keep my grandparents from getting married until 1934, the Marquette Opera House was the place where their courtship and pending nuptials were confirmed. I doubt a more romantic place existed in Marquette for my grandparents to pledge their love since by all accounts the opera house was a truly elegant structure.
The Marquette Opera House was built in 1890 with Peter White and John M. Longyear forming a corporation to sell stock to fund its construction. When completed, the building would contain three floors, including not only the theatre but four shops on the first floor, office suites on the second, and a third floor leased to the Masonic order.
Designed by local architect Carl F. Struck, the building’s exterior was of native brownstone and brick with a Romanesque entrance of Portage Entry sandstone. The interior, however, was the most stunning. A stairway led to the ticket office. Hallways led to the dress balcony and the Masonic Hall. The style inside was Italian Renaissance with ornate boxes, frescoes depicting comedy and tragedy, and of course, an impressive proscenium arch with an Italian landscape painted on the drop curtain. The plush chairs—enough to hold 900—were the same as those in New York’s Madison Square Garden. Popular plays and operas were performed including the Victorian favorite, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
In 1927, the building was bought by the Masons and became known as the Masonic Building. By that time, movies had come to Marquette and the Delft Theatre had been operating a dozen years, so to compete, a variety of performances transplanted some of the more traditional plays and operas. Nevertheless, many performances were played here to great success, and it was not uncommon for national celebrities to visit, including Lillian Russell, Lon Chaney, John Philip Sousa, and W.C. Fields. I only wish I knew what performance my grandparents watched the night of their engagement.
Like many an opera heroine, the Marquette Opera House would meet a tragic ending.
Stay tuned to my next post to find out the dramatic story of the opera house’s end. The full story, complete with a photo of the Opera House’s interior can be found in My Marquette.
Tags: Carl F. Struck, Delft Theatre, John M. Longyear, john philip sousa, lillian russell, Lon Chaney, Marquette brownstone, marquette opera house, Masonic Building, my marquette, peter white, Sandstone, the only thing that lasts, the queen city, tyler tichelaar, Uncle Tom's Cabin, W.C. FieldsYou can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.