WHEELER OPERA HOUSE, TOLEDO, OHIO
The following account of the Wheeler Opera House is from “A Minstrel Town”, by Marion S. Revett, published by Pageant Press Inc. NY, in 1955. pp 87-97. The book describes various concert halls in Toledo, OH. Words or sentences in parenthesis are my comments – BWM, Aug, 2003
Wheeler Opera House, on the other hand, was a fabulous place (The Wheeler narrative is right after another hall called White’s). It became known all over the theatrical world for its modern arrangements, its magnificent decorations and its stage and lighting facilities. Jeff Wheeler, wealthy business man and sportsman, was proud of this monument to his family name.
On December 9, 1870, he granted a press interview and a tour of the new building. In the days of gas light, fire was the one hazard feared in all public places. Mr. Wheeler outlined the precautions.
On the roof of the building was an iron tank holding 350 barrels of water. By means of hose stretched in all directions throughout the Opera House, he was convinced that fire could be controlled at a moment’s notice. Just to make sure, he had also installed an outside fire escape, accessible from every floor of the theater.
Wheeler’s was located at the northwest corner of Monroe and St. Clair streets, with the main entrance on St. Clair, opening upon a great staircase thirteen feet wide. The staircase ascended to a broad vestibule on the second floor, in which were found the ticket offices and the clock rooms. These cubicles were then flanked by two shorter stairways, one on each side, leading up to the lobby of the theater, then leading down into the orchestra section. Doors swung in both directions for easy exit; upon entering the lofty auditorium the audience was impressed by the stage. Seventy-seven feet of clear width from wall to wall and forty-three feet deep. There were six traps and ten shifts of scenery. Four ranges of border lights illuminated the stage from above, and were carefully guarded by screens to make it impossible for any of the canvas to come into contact with the burners. To the right, facing the stage, was the prompter’s desk, to which was attached the key table, enabling the prompter to regulate the gas in any part of the house without interfering with other lighting apparatus. The stage entrance was on Monroe street offering additional emergency exits to patrons.
The drop curtain had, to right and left, massive folds of crimson and green damask, and when drawn aside, revealed in the center an immense figure of Poetry, the mother of all arts.
The pirouette, nearest the stage, was furnished with 300 tilting chairs upholstered in leather. The floor, inclining towards the stage, was adjusted upon an axis to allow its being made completely level, within five minutes, to form a dance floor. The dress circle, immediately behind the pirouette, seated another 300. The balcony, seating 360, was furnished with carved seats made of alternate slats of ash and black walnut. The third floor, or family circle, held another 360 seats, permitting a total of 1400 people in the building.
The frescoing in the arch above the stage displayed a portrait of Shakespeare, and to his right were life-size pictures of Beethoven and Goethe. To the left were pictures of Mozart and Schiller. The interior of the dome, arching over the mammoth crystal chandelier, was decorated with the figures of the nine Muses: Terpsichore, Lyric, Poetry, Comedy, Music, Oratory, Tragedy, Astronomy, Epic Poetry, and History.
The playhouse opened on December 15, 1871, with Parepa Rosa’s English Opera Company in Bohemian Girl and Martha. There was a four hour lineup at the box office, and by noon two-thirds of the tickets for both performances had been sold.
Theodore Thomas and his orchestra played Wheeler’s March 13, 1872 and later William Sothern and Buffalo Bill appeared. Ticket scalping arrived in Toledo with the advance publicity of Joseph Jefferson in Rip Van Winkle. In an era when tickets were sold in advance at the nearest drug store, Bailey’s store opened at 6:00 AM, and a crowd had gathered long before the doors opened. To make sure that turnabout was fair play, those in line chalked on each other’s backs the number of his or her place in the line. This “Safety Committee” originated a plan which is now used in Supermarkets – that of taking a number and being waited upon in turn. Tickets for Jefferson’s play, which retailed at $1.50 were resold for as high as $24.00 each. Purchasing a box at $18.00, one commercial soul resold the space for $43.00.
Jefferson’s one night stand had to be spread into an additional Saturday matinee to take care of the crowds who came by special trains from nearby cities in Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana.
One June 8, 1872, during a performance of the Black Crook ballet, the props caught fire on stage and the building was evacuated successfully, thanks to the foresight of Jeff Wheeler.
The year 1955 was not the year when our children first discovered the derring-do of Davy Crockett. On January 8, 1873, Frank Mayo brought to Wheeler’s his newest play, entitled Davy Crockett, or, Be Sure You’re Right, Then Go Ahead.
Minnie Madden, child actress, was a member of Augustin Daly’s Divorce at the Opera House, April 15, 1873; Ada Monck also played Divorce in September. Charlotte Cushman toured in Macbeth and Guy Mannering. In 1874, the great Tomasso Salvini played Othello and E.H. Sothern gave a Saturday Matinee Only in David Garrick and Lord Dundreary. Lawrence Barrett returned to Toledo in Richelieu and Richard III. William J. Florence played Wheeler’s in Dombery & Son.
In the great and memorable year of 1875, Ida Cerito and her “Lady Minstrels and Cancan dancers” took over Wheeler’s, and “only fourteen ladies came to see the show, although it was well filled with men who all agree that the performance was highly indecent”.
Edwin Adams was touring in Hamlet, and Jean Davenport returned in Marie Antoinette and Antony and Cleopatra. Charlotte Thompson brought Jane Eyre, and it was while Theodore Tilton was lecturing most fervently that “the audience heard a loud report of a pistol in the gallery. At first it had been thought that there was an attempt on his life, but investigation showed the pistol was in the pocket of someone in the gallery and had accidentally discharged”.
In 1876 the first legal wrestling match was held here, between Col. McLaughlin of Detroit and Mr. Smith of New York. Miss Jeffrys-Lewis, to whom Daly was paying the magnificent sum of $200 a week, played in Pique and Bonanza.
After five years of Wheeler’s programs, it was becoming apparent that the same stars, the same producers and the same plays were being returned as often as two and three times a season. Our theater-going public had learned the hard way to look for those W’s of the newspaper industry: Who, What, Where, When, and Why. No longer would they purchase tickets for third rate Shakespeare, or burlesque entitled “Lady Minstrels”. No longer would they take their children to Wheeler’s without first analyzing the program and the names in the cast.
In April of 1877 Charles Pope again unpacked his belongings for a performance of Samson, and the audience was so small that Mr. Pope declined to have the curtain rung up.
When Harry Hunter brought his truly wonderful show Evangeline, in 1879, theater goers had become so familiar with the format of shows that the drama critic found it necessary to report, disgustedly: “It has long been a custom here for people to commence leaving the hall as soon as finale begins. Last night they rose en masse as the curtain rung down on the third act, and many went clear out before they discovered that the entertainment was not finished, by one act”.
Then, one day, actress Mary Anderson’s manager wrote a letter to the editor of the Blade explaining why Mary never played Toledo – and the cat was out of its bag. Mr. C.J.Whitney, Detroit producer and chain theater owner, had taken over the Opera House as lessee and manager. “Whitney refuses to permit anybody to play his theaters,” charged the manager, “unless they were part of his circuit, playing wherever he booked them” – or else. Anyone preferring to play the equally successful Detroit Opera House, instead of Whitney’s, was refused bookings in the towns where only Whitney had the theaters.
Sarah Bernhardt played Wheeler’s on March 10, 1881, and proved herself more popular by the manner in which she took editorial cracks at her appearance (being a good sport with a sense of humor) than by her all-French dialog, which no one could understand.
Humor at the expense of the Divine Sarah may have been based upon the fact that she was taking a lot of good American dollars back home with her. It was to some extent both ungentlemanly and vicious, particularly in Our Town where people had been bilked so often and so thoroughly.
March 10 1881: “A wild rumor prevailed this morning that Mlle Sarah Bernhardt would not appear this evening in consequence of an accident. It was said that, in taking a bath yesterday, she incautiously pulled out the plug before getting out of the bath and was swept down the waste pipe, her sister Mlle Jeanne rescuing her with a button hook. The rumor is absurd. When Mlle Sarah bathes, she coils herself up like a watch-spring and uses the ordinary washbowl…”.
March 11: “When Mlle Sarah read the item in the Blade yesterday she stamped her foot and exclaimed: ‘Sacre ze eedeot. Does not ze scribbler know zat ze gr-r-eat French artiste nevair bathes at all? Eet eez too absurd. But all ze same, it eez ze grand advertisement’ – and calling Abbey they discussed the feasibility of advancing prices in the cities she is to visit.
“Sarah came, she saw, and she conquered. For a lightweight she carries the belt. She can act more per ounce than any woman we ever saw. To those who wonder how so slight a figure as Bernhardt’s can posssess such a voice, we respectfully commend a few minutes consideration of the ear-piercing fife. Those who were at the Opera House last evening will be satisfied with the American Stock Company hereafter.
“It is not true that she has a 2½-inch waist and tries on her hats by sending a billiard cue to be fitted. She has a head – with plenty in it!”.
By 1882 theater-goers had become so discriminating that when Gus Frohman’s fine play Hazel Kirke arrived, the Blade wrote: “We take joy and fairly revel in the fact that whenever, this season, there has been a meritorious performance , the Opera House was not large enough to hold the audience, and bad combos have invariably played to empty benches.”
In September Wheeler’s finally received from Whitney profits a pro-rata offer of redecoration, with new curtains, new scenery, and a smart coat of paint. At the request of the Fire Department, he installed additional fire apparatus and a fire alarm call, placed in the prompter’s desk. New hose was strung from the water tank on the roof, and fire escapes were modernized.
Maurice Barrymore and Modjeska played Cymbeline in September, 1883, and when the ever popular Mlle Rhea, with William Harris, arrived for Richelieu and The School for Scandal, there was SRO for the first time in many months.
“The house was filled to the doors,” wrote the critic, “and the orchestra was uprooted and placed upon the stage behind the curtain, to make more room for seats. This was an improvement, and were the orchestra removed to the farther side of Monroe Street, it would be still better. The interposition of the curtain was something, and for this relief, much thanks.”
After three years of Whitney management, there was so much complaint from the public that, in deference to its very generous advertiser, the Blade editor broke into a veritable whitewashing of the entire booking procedure.
“Unjust comment on management of the Opera House. For a city of 70,000 people, Opera House is not only well, but liberally managed. It is not true that Whitney has control of Adrian, Tecumseh, and Hudson (Mich.), and that he only places in Toledo such attractions as play these small cities.. He has no interest whatever in amusements of either of these towns, and the Toledo house is entirely independent of his other houses. That he places attractions here, without reference to his Detroit theater, is proved by the following statement…” There followed a short list naming Lilly Langtry, John McCollough, Robson, Crane, and about a dozen second-rate companies. “Mr. Whitney is doing everything possible to please patrons in this city, both in attractions and proper placing of pieces upon the stage. Of course, he does not mount pieces as elegantly as in the great cities, but it is done much better than usual in cities of the same population, and we have no reason to complain. When Toledo has twice the population to draw support, probably there will be an improvement in this particular. We esteem ourselves fortunate in having so pleasant and well appointed a theater.”
For one more reason, then, a better class of bookings was brought in and then, by January 31, 1885, the editor was swallowing his own whitewash. “ Events at Wheeler’s last week show that the theater-going people are out of humor with the old plays, even though they be standard, and are craving for something new. This something need not be good, in fact it may be the veriest (sic) rot, providing it is given by a good company.”
Whitney’s manager had been George W. Bills. Later in 1884 Whitney sent two of his managers, Sam W. Brady and Charles Garwood, to open a second theater. It was planned as a B-rated house to take whatever bookings could not be handled at Wheeler’s. Old White’s Hall was renovated, redecorated, and opened on Feb 15, 1885, with a one-company-a-week policy, a sizeable orchestra and 10-20-30 prices. Sending in Sam Brady was the first real favor Whitney had ever done Our Town , and the favor was unintentional. Brady was a true theater man at heart; he soon learned to know his neighbors and the type of entertainment they wanted. With deep respect for his new People’s Theater and for its neighbors, he insisted upon second-rate shows that offered only the cleanest comedy and drama. There was plenty of Wild West, Whodunnits and shoot-em-up shenanigans, but nothing to which his friends could not bring the children. Business boomed, and by September of 1886 Whitney cast out George Bills and appointed Brady manager of both theaters. People’s and Wheeler’s were re-decorated, and the first thing Brady did at the Opera House was to lower the prices. Within one year the Blade wrote: “Since manager Brady brought the Opera House prices down to a reasonable level, it is continually filled with the best in plays and box-office receipts. With People’s running a 10-20-30, and one show held a whole week, the town seems to be the most show-minded it has ever been in years since Wheeler’s first opened.”
Four years from the time Brady took over in Toledo, he built a new People’s Theater (now known as Schubert’s) at the SW corner of St Clair and Orange streets. With his share of the profits from both theaters he was able to branch out as a producer, and began managing his own small chain of theaters.
By 1888 the Opera House was receiving bad bookings in spite of Brady’s attempts to keep them clean. Burlesque came in with “Early Birds Tally-Ho Female Minstrels,” and the Blade called the show “so dirty that Brady should be ashamed. The Opera House is in disgrace.”
Two years later further precautions were made against fire at Wheeler’s. Windows were made into doorways for quicker evacuation, and several more exits were built. Bookings remained, for the most part, mediocre. Whitney, like the later theatrical producers who monopolized the industry, never did learn to listen to the strength of public opinion. By 1891, producers who sent all the old has-beens on the road, grumbled because the houses were small. “They should put on something good”, warned the Blade, “and the house would be full. Let the manager shelve the old programs. Toledo people are tired, and very tired, of chestnuts.” So we continued to get a little pure theater and a lot of pure hokum.
In 1892 the public, the Blade and the management blew up in an explosion of words, threats, and criticisms, which broke Wheeler’ nearly two years before fire finally solved the problem. The Blade wrote:
“Management of our theaters think the newspapers should give them square yards of ‘puffs’ in advance, and then let everything down easy. The dramatic reporters, who don’t know. Usually, a stage cue from a hay mow, will exhaust their adjective lists searching for words of praise with which to fitly show subservience to the manager of the theater. Toledo needs a a theater directed by a man who has some interest in Toledo and knows a few good things once in a while. The Blade desires to be fair with Mr. Brady. It has told the public that Detroit management was to blame for the present state of affairs. The writer has a letter in his possession with ‘Whitney, Brady, Garwood Circuit’ printed at the head. It most positively states that Whitney does the bookings for Wheeler’s. Then why in the name of decency, doesn’t Mr. Whitney give us something except 90% rot and 10% A-1? Peoples Theater is conducted in an excellent manner. There have been few attractions at this house that were not worth the money, it is making money, while at the policy at Wheeler’s is suicidal. There it rests.”
Few days later the Blade reported the criticisms which have been made in the Blade have made the management of Wheeler’s very hot. They have threatened all sorts of things, and refused to give any announcements to the paper in the future. Nevertheless we will go on right on with our work and try to better the attractions brought to Toledo. Really, now, ought there not be one house in town where good, decent, aristocratic attractions could and should be played? The William A. Brady company for instance plays what is known as Jacob’s circuit for even cheaper than the shows which play Peoples.” True to its threats the management stopped all advertising in the Blade and only The Bee was a recognized outlet for publicity. After Wheeler’s Opera House burned down 1:00 AM on March 17th, 1893, all Whitney’s bookings went into the New People’s Theater.
Last company to play at Wheeler’s was George Thacher’s Minstrels and they had packed their belongings and left the building about 11:00 PM.
Later wealthy Toledoan Mr. A.M.Woolson announced that he “would have built a theater here long ago had it not been for the interference of Whitney, who has the Detroit circuit, which included Toledo. He (Whitney) declared his intention of boycotting any new theater, if built.”
When the Wheeler bookings were re-routed over to People’s Theater, the Bee was not to be outdone in courage, also called a spade a spade, and lost Whitney’s advertising. When the new Valentine theater opened on Dec 25th, 1895, the People’s theater’s bookings immediately became so good that SRO was the rule, rather than exception.
Webmaster’s note: A commercial building, known as the Wheeler Block, was built at the Wheeler Opera House site soon after the fire and it was in the possession of the Wheeler family until 1935. Wheeler block was demolished during early 1980s. St. Clair Street north of Monroe was blocked off and the Convention Center now occupies the NW and NE corners of Monroe and St. Clair.