Posted tagged ‘john philip sousa’

Marquette’s Opera House

October 16, 2010

            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.

The Historic Calumet Theatre

October 9, 2010

The historic Calumet Theatre

Yesterday, I made a trip to the Copper Country to deliver copies of my newest book My Marquette to various stores. I had never been to the Calumet Theatre but often heard of its historic signficance and beauty so I took the opportunity to take the self-guided tour. Here are a few of the photos from my visit. Sadly, they do not really come close to displaying the charm of this historic theatre. In fact, the theatre’s proscenium arch is too large to get a full shot of it, especially considering how the balconies are laid out so that you can’t fully view it from where otherwise you could get a full shot. The arch is 32′ wide, 26′ deep and 26′ high.

The historic Calumet Theatre was constructed beginning in 1898 and opened to the public in 1900. Opening night was considered one of the biggest social events in the Copper Country’s history. In the years that followed, many famous early twentieth century celebrities performed here, including Sarah Bernhardt, Lillian Russell, John Philip Sousa, and Chauncey Olcott (the latter may not be a household name today but

Tyler inside the theatre

he was a great Irish tenor who first made famous the song “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” Many of these celebrities also visited Marquette’s Opera House (see My Marquette for more about it) but while Marquette is the largest city in Upper Michigan today, Calumet was the largest a century ago so it could sustain an opera house and attract such big names.

The theatre has two balconies both of which are of significant sizes, as well as two boxes on the main floor close to the stage, each seating four people. Today the theatre holds 700 people, but on opening night it held 1200 (420 on the main floor, 400 in the  first balcony, and 380 in the second balcony).

The proscenium arch has beautiful murals which were original to the theatre, then removed, and finally restored in recent years.

Box seats

By the 1920s, films were becoming popular and the grand age of opera passing away. Movies began to be shown in the theatre, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs when it debuted in 1937, while plays were also still performed.

Yes, the Calumet Theatre is said to have its ghost. One of the early great actors to visit it was the Polish Madame Helena Modjeska. Rumor has it that in the 1950s another actress was performing but had forgot her line, and she looked up to the balcony and there the ghost of Madame Modjeska was mouthing her lines to her.

In 1971, the theatre was designated as a National Historic Building. With much support from the community, the theatre remains a significant jewel and part of Calumet’s history and social life. In more recent years the Osmonds, Kathy Mattea and the Glenn Miller Orchestra have performed here. Plays including a musical version of Gilligan’s Island have been performed, and later this month Arlo Guthrie will be performing. For more information about the Calumet Theatre and to see a show there, you can visit their website at

Proscenium Arch

Finally, an excellent recent article about the Calumet Theatre appeared in the June 2010 Marquette Monthly. The theatre has been having problems with its roof, to such an extent that tours can no longer go into the Sarah Bernhardt dressing room. The cost to repair the roof is $200,000. A self-guided tour is only $4.00. Please make an effort if you live in the area to visit this fabulous part of U.P. History. Take a tour (guided or self-guided), or go to their monthly performances, including Dinner and a Movie. If I lived in Calumet, I’m sure I’d be attending performances there every month. The Calumet Theatre not only tells us about Calumet and theatrical history but what life was like at the turn of the century, and perhaps even a glimpse of what Marquette’s Opera House was like. In a future post, I’ll talk about the Marquette Opera House as well.

Taken from the worst seat in the house

If you do visit the Calumet Theatre, just make sure you don’t get a seat behind two poles. I hope you’ve enjoyed my photos and that you’ll visit the Calumet Theatre soon. There’s no place like it in Upper Michigan!

Murals on the Proscenium Arch