Source: North Manchester Journal, February 1, 1883


We have no cause now to complain for lack of theatrical entertainments. Five companies are now booked to appear at the Opera House within the next two weeks. Three of them are Uncle Tom's Cabin Companies. Our amusement goers have had a long rest.

The first company is E.O. Rogers' New York Standard Uncle tom's Cabin company will play here tomorrow evening. This company is one of the largest on the road, and is said to give a good show. They have a large pack of blood-hounds, a trick donkey and a brass band. Any body wishing to see the old drama played will find this a good opportunity. The character of Topsy sustained by Miss Lillie Rogers is said to be fine.

On next Wednesday evening the Swedish Lady Quartet will appear on the boards of the Opera House. This is one of the best companies traveling. They play in all the larger cities and their entertainments are well received. A good entertainment may be expected from them and they deserve a good house.

The Roann Dramatic Club will play a drama entitled The Little Brown Jug here on Saturday evening, Feb'y 10th. The company produced the play at home with good success. The company has been organized some time and is quite a good amateur company.

Anthony & Ellis' Double Mammoth Ideal Uncle Tom's Cabin Co., is booked for the 13th. This is their second visit having been here two years ago.

Draper's Mammoth Double Uncle Tom's Cabin co., is booked for the 16th. He was here a year ago last fall.

Source: North Manchester News-Journal, Feb 2, 2011

Now it's a parking lot between the Eel River American Legion Post and Zook's Café; then it was the site of the imposing Hamilton Opera House. Built in 1880 by David Hamilton, destroyed by fire in 1885 and rebuilt the following year, the Opera House was a center of cultural life in North Manchester for more than three quarters of a century. In 1962, the Opera House was torn down.

All that's left are artifacts represented by a large, colorful stage curtain, now on display at the History Center, a metal harp that once decorated the classical façade above the entrance, a few black and white photographs; a handful of programs commemorating dramatic performances and ceremonial events; and the memories of North Manchester's citizens.

Without doubt, the most striking artifact is the Opera House curtain. Through its dramatic red border exhibiting advertisements of North Manchester businesses and the misty depiction of a medieval castle at the center, the curtain opens a window onto the past, providing a glimpse of everyday life of North Manchester, and also of the dreams and aspirations of local citizens who flocked to the plays and musical events performed in this local center of culture.

The curtain was created around 1907 by local artists Charles Henney and Elizabeth Henney Rex, in replacement of an earlier curtain, which still exists but in such a damaged condition that it cannot be exhibited. The glimpse of commercial life presented by the 1907 curtain illuminates a moment in time at the beginning of the last century.

Not one of the businesses advertised on the curtain remains today. We know about them mainly through the memory of the late Dr. Ladoska Z. Bunker, a local historian who was interviewed by Steve Batzka in 1982. In addition, Dr. Bunker wrote an article on the Opera House, which appeared in the May 1989 issue of "The Newsletter of the North Manchester Historical Society."

In 1982, Oppenheim's department store, located in the building now occupied by the Center for History, was still in business. On the curtain, its ad reads as follows: "It pays to trade at B. Oppenheim & Co's Big Double Store. Dry Goods, Clothing, and Shoes." Founded in 1871, the firm lasted for more than a century and in 1907, Dr. Bunker said, Oppenheim's was "in its heyday."

Other businesses were more closely tied to a passing way of life. In the days before oil and gas heat, Young and Shupp sold "Hard and Soft Coal"; before the prevalence of the automobile, R.P. Jordan and Son sold feed and operated a livery stable; before the advent of telecommunication giants, North Manchester had two local telephone companies, Eel River and Rex. Jordan and Son could be called on either system.

In 1907, before automobiles had transformed American society, they could be just one item in a variety store. The curtain tells us that Olinger and Warvel sold "Kodaks, automobiles, phonographs, and sporting goods." Eventually, Dr. Bunker said, Olinger and Warvel got the Ford agency, and everything else dropped by the wayside.

Along with North Manchester businesses of 1907, Dr. Bunker also recalled Charles Henney and Elizabeth Henney Rex, the artists who created the curtain. Charles painted the signs; Elizabeth painted the central scene dominated by a medieval castle. After more than a century, Elizabeth, called Lizzie, seems herself a figure of romance. She was a striking auburn-haired woman, dressed, as she worked, in a gingham pinafore that came right down to her heels. Dr. Bunker called her "a Burne-Jones figure" and "an ethereal kind of lady." Like many a heroine of the 19th century melodramas, Lizzie died young of consumption. According to Dr. Bunker, her husband, Orlando Rex, founder of the Rex telephone company, was disconsolate at her death and soon left town.

The medieval scene painted by Lizzie was appropriate for the kind of programs and plays presented at the Opera House. Performances by locals often encompassed lofty themes for which a mystic castle provided a fitting image.

The programs represented high aspirations and high points in the lives of local citizens. For example, in the late 19th century, high school graduation ceremonies were often held in the Opera House. In a time when only a few graduated from high school, classes were small; however, extant brochures indicate that graduates were sent off with elaborate ceremonies. On May 27, 1892, Fannie Oppenheim was the only graduate, but her commencement featured harp and vocal solos, several recitations, an address by Rev. J. Ullery and an oration called "Conservatism and Radicalism" by the graduate herself.

An uplifting, locally produced play was performed on April 22, 1892. "The Temple of Fame" was given in support of The Women's Relief Corps, an auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic, which was an organization of Civil War veterans. The cast consisted of 36 North Manchester citizens, along with Miss Maude Quivey, who played a piano solo.

In the drama, The Goddess of the Temple, played by Mrs. Mead Sexton, "becomes impressed with the fact that people were not sufficiently recognized by the community at large as being entitled to celebrity." Therefore, she summons "a galaxy of celebrities," who appear and put forth "their claim for the Crown of Fame." Representing a serious look at history and culture, some of the 36 who appear come from the Bible, such as Ruth and Miriam, some from classical history, such as Sappho and Cleopatra; some from the Renaissance, such as Michelangelo, Queen Isabella and Mary Queen of Scots; some from American history, such as George and Martha Washington; and some from the contemporary period, such as Jenny Lind, Louisa May Alcott and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

We don't know how the Goddess treated these claimants because the text of the play has been lost. It's likely, however, that the winners are not recognized celebrities but the unknowns in the cast, such as Laura Dainty and Farmer Yates and wife.

An even more ambitious local production comes from 1898. "American Born," called "a grand patriotic drama," and "a romantic melodrama," was performed one night only, Thursday evening, February 17. The play was sponsored by Company D, 3rd Infantry, of the Indiana National Guard, and the privates of the unit are listed in the playbill.

The performance took place only two days after the battleship Main exploded in Havana harbor, and although the event was too recent to give rise to the play itself, it's clear that "American Born" was a part of the patriotic fervor leading up to the Spanish American War. The script is not available, but the plot summary indicates that an all-American boy named Dickie Doodle--doubtless a relative of Yankee Doodle--comes in conflict with a villainous "half-breed Spanish Count" named Don Allogrotto. The entire cast seems to have been made of locals, including fair maidens in need of rescue and a contingent of Bolivian soldiers played by members of Company D.

Even more than local productions, plays performed by professional companies carried audiences away from their humdrum lives to realms of eloquence and high romance. Dr. Bunker recalled that Shakespeare was a perennial favorite, represented by "The Merchant of Venice," "Richard III," and "As You Like It." Other titles also have an exotic ring: "Camelot," "Richelieu," and "The Royal Slave." Others were probably slapstick comedies and downright silly. For example, "Maloney's Wedding," and "The Cabbage Patch." One famous play, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," dealt with sociopolitical issues of the recent past, and Dr. Bunker said, real bloodhounds were used to pursue Eliza across the ice.

The Opera House playlist is partially documented because in 1982, Dr. Bunker had in her possession an Opera House account book. Unfortunately, the book has been lost; at least, it's not in the possession of the Historical Society. Based on Dr. Bunker's description, the account book, which she got from David Hamilton's son-in-law, seems to have covered the years 1900-1917.

During that time, Dr. Bunker said famous actresses like Nora Bayes and Fay Bainter registered at the Sheller Hotel and probably performed at the Opera House. Among professional theatrical groups appearing in the account book are The Dragon Company, the Alice Byron Company, the Kinney Komedy Kompany and the Edward Doyle Company. Sadly, these groups are not well documented, but a description which Dr. Bunker drew from memory shows what their presence brought to the cultural life of the community. She notes that Edward Doyle, a distinguished Shakespearean actor, often appeared on the streets of North Manchester "neatly dressed in a cloak, brown morning coat, wing collar, ascot tie and brown derby hat--the epitome of fashion."

He might have stepped from the exotic center panel of the Opera House curtain.

Source: NMHS NewsletterMay 1989

The Hamilton Opera House A Memoir 1880-1962
by Dr. L. Z. Bunker

The Hamilton Opera House was built in 1880 by Samuel Hamilton, a local Civil War veteran who had various business interests in North Manchester.  One of his projects was a large brick yard near Servia.  This brick, dark and hard surfaced, was used in the construction of the building which was located at 213 East Main Street.  The Opera House occupied the second floor of the building.  The width of the lot was 78.375 feet broad and extended 156.75 feet to the rear.  Beyond this were further sheds.

The first floor was occupied by Bus Johnson’ Livery Stable which had various vehicles for hire, including several enclosed and rather rusty, one-horse cabs, a huge “carry all”  used on Decoration Day, Fourth of July, etc., some two-seated buggies and surreys with fringe on top.  Horses were kept in stalls in the rear with hay and grain in the rear sheds.  The local bus, a two-horse vehicle, which was in attendance to the daily trains operated from here.

After a long occupancy by Johnson, the business was taken over by Ollie Jefferson, who occupied the brick residence next door at 215 East Main Street, now owned by the American Legion

Now to the Opera House—the entrance was off of Main Street and up a broad flight of stairs.  Inside, the area was spacious with several aisles.  Since the ceiling was high, there was a rear gallery reached by narrow stairs to the left of the main stairway.  Admission here was 25 cents.  Seating was on curved-back, hickory chairs, eight in a section, seats nailed to plank to keep them in order.  The floors were bare, the walls calcimined for many years in light blue.

Electric lights became available in 1894 in North Manchester and this is the probable reason that the Opera House stood so long and was not condemned in a major holocaust.

Inside the front, there was a large painted proscenium with the stage reaching across the rear of the building.  Three steps reached the state on each side and a round of foots lights illuminated the area.  There was also upper lighting.  Large canvas screens, painted to simulate trees, were on each side of the stage reaching to the ceiling.

In the midst of this was the stage curtain, two panels of which the Historical Society owns (due to the kindness of Mr. J. P. Freeman) brightly painted with a center scene of Warwick Castle.  This was surrounded by advertising signs of local businesses.  Curtains and much scenery were painted by C. E. Henney and his sister, Elizabeth Henney Rex.  For many years they maintained a studio and painted curtains for theatres all over the Midwest.

A modest amount of scenery and canvas screens was kept on hand, several interiors, a painted garden scene with gazebo, etc.  Traveling companies sometimes brought ponderous scenery and furniture, called props, by train.  All this to be hauled to the theatre on the local dray!

Backstage dressing rooms were impromptu, tongue and groove partitions, facilities Spartan indeed!

We do not know what the first performance was when the Opera House opened in 1880.  Our newspaper records do not extend beyond 1881, so this may be forever unknown, but since we were on two railroads, traveling theatrical companies frequently stopped here.

The Sheller Hotel register has the signatures of Nora Bayes of “Shine On Harvest Moon” fame.  Also, Fay Bainter.  Popular plays in the 1880’s were “Lena Rivers,”  “Last Days of Pompei,”  “ Way Down East,” and several Shakespearian plays.  “Twelfth Night” was rarely given, being considered too rowdy for ladies.  “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was a perennial favorite.  Traveling companies hauled in all manner of props and borrowed Newt Lautzenheiser’s blood hounds to pursue Eliza across the (artificial) ice!

There were no radios, no movies, no television, few magazines and no library so the Opera House was a real attraction.  There were, however, lectures, “magic lantern” shows, home talent and their “living tableaus” must have been a real sight.  Immortal J. N. hired the hall but never kept his promise to “lift the veil and reveal the future.”  Sometimes in the cooler months there were dances.  Since this was before air conditioning, activities usually avoided the summer.

Many local people considered the Opera House a fire trap and never set foot in it, but there were enough others who made it a scene of local activity.

W. G. Hatfield, who was the Hamilton’s son-in-law, acted as manager of the Opera House for many years.  He gave me his account book, extending from Sept. 17, 1900 to Nov. 5, 1917.  The first entry, Sept. 17, 1900 lists “Quo Vadis,” a religious play as the attraction.  Total receipts were $89.70, of which the owners of the Opera House got 20%, but they spent $6.20 on printing and posting bills.  Occasional entries follow-itinerant companies of rag tag mummers, and “fair week” in late September or early October was a week of theatre going.  This is repeated through the ledger.  Oct. 2, 1901, “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch,” a one-night stand.  Home talent Dec. 10, 1901.  Dances were held Dec. 22 and 31 of that year.  The Kinney Komedy Kompany was here on several occasions, not too successfully apparently!

Each year there are expenses listed such as coal $6.00, so there must have been stoves for heat. 

1905 was busy theatrically.  Fair week, Oct. 2-8, the Dragon Company was here followed by The Alice Byron Company in November.  Also, there was a one-night production of “A Royal Slave.”  Each fall fair week brought a theatrical troupe like Hamilton Philips or Kinney Komedy Kompany.  Beginning in 1910 the Edward Doyle Company came here annually for the next eight years.

In the summer of 1914 a considerable renovation occurred.  An iron fire escape was put on the east side of the building at an expense of $150.00.  New scenery of the building at an expense of $150.00.  New scenery cost $100.00, a wash stand and plaster cost. $70.00 and electric lamps, $15.00.  $45.00 was spent on furniture and the painters earned $52.75 but supplied the paint.

The most prosperous entry in the old ledger is that of the Edward Doyle Company of six days, Sept. 4-9 in 1916. ; Gross income was $531.00, of which the company took 70% and the owners 30%.  Not only was the Doyle Company the most prosperous, but the most professional of the itinerant companies.  Dr. Doyle, himself the leading man, could be seen on local streets, neatly dressed in a cloak, brown morning coat, wing collar, ascot tie and brown derby hat.  The epitome of fashion.

Popular plays during these years were Bulwer Lytton’s “Richelieu,” and the old Shakespearean standbys, “Richard III,”  “Julius Caesar,”  and  “As You Like It.”  “Camille” languished and died in the aging Opera House.

Times change and we change in them.  By 1917 we had two movie theatres, on ground floor with safety exits, and a nickelodeon.  The Chautauqua came to town with snappy Broadway shows like “Free Man From Home” by Booth Tarkington, “Seven Keys to Baldpate,” and “It Pays to Advertise.”  By the early 1920’s the radio “crystal set” appeared and entertainment in the USA changed totally.  Tour shows, the old standby, had become motorized troupes playing in tents, as were other theatrical troupes.  One in Manchester in 1918 played a raucous extravaganza called “Getting Gertie’s Garter!”

By 1920 one of the chief activities at the Opera House was basketball games, later transferred to the new high school gymnasiums.  A few meetings, a few dances and one by one the activities in the old place fell away.  By the late 1920’s the livery business was gone and Stuckey Brothers operated the Oldsmobile Sales and Garage on the ground floor.  The upstairs was vacant with only echoes of the past.  By 1962 the building was torn down and the present day parking lot constructed.

Source: NMHS Newsletter, August 1992

Opera House Fire Letter to the News-Journal from Leola Hockett, Wabash, March 31, 1944
[From the North Manchester Historical Society Museum]

I saw the statement in your paper after the recent fire that no one could recall the date of the fire that destroyed the opera house.
In the Manchester Journal of October 15, 1885, is half a page about that fire from which the following is taken:
“At one o’clock Sunday night fire was discovered in the Hidy Brothers Restaurant.  When discovered, it had spread to Johnson’s barber shop on the west and to the Thomas Clothing Store on the east.  These buildings were all old frame structures, and the fire spread with lightning rapidity.

“At this time the flames could have been easily extinguished, but at this juncture it was found that the fire engine was disabled and could not be used, although it had been in the shop for repairs since the Tuesday preceding.   An effort was made to fix it for service which was finally successful, although the machinist had declared that it was perfectly useless.


“There had been several damaged flues taken out of the engine, and the one ordered to replace them had not yet arrived.  Finally some men were induced to go to work on it, when it was seen to what uncontrollable magnitude the fire was spreading.  In a short time the disabled flues were plugged up and a fire built in the box.  The engine worked and was taken to the cistern at the corner of Main and Market Street, and about half past two was throwing water.


“In the meantime the flames had devoured several buildings placing the entire south side of Main Street in great danger of being destroyed.  The three buildings mentioned were entirely comsumed.  Jenning’s grocery was a mass of flames; Hamilton’s saloon and Krisher’s meat market were burning rapidly; and the flames had caught in the opera house, the roof of which was burning.


“…Although the fire company had arrived on the ground soon after the first alarm and worked with might and main, assisted by the crowd, they seemed powerless to check the spreading conflagration. Bucket lines were formed to the river and wells nearby, and all attention was turned to saving the buildings that had not yet been attacked.


“The engine was now playing on the opera house and succeeded in arresting the fire before it caught in Johnson’s livery stable in the rear, but not before the entire upper story and nearly all of the livery barn was destroyed.  The fire was under control when the Wabash fire department, which had been sent for in the beginning, arrived.  The Wabash fire department received the word shortly after one o’clock but did not get started from that city until 2:25, owing to a combination of circumstances… They made the trip in exactly 25 minutes, including two stops for water and one crossing.,.  Although too late to be of much advantage, yet had not our engine been fitted for service, it would have been of incalculable service to the town.


“The loss is estimated at from $20,000 to $30,000.  Very little of this loss was covered by insurance.

“Repairs for the engine arrived on Monday.”

“The new fire bell which was placed last week on the tower built for it did good service in arousing the people from their slumbers.”

“The loss of the opera house left the town without a public hall of any kind.


The following from a Wabash newspaper shows the rapidity with which things were accomplished in the so-called “good old days.”

“On Sunday night the city night watchman was called to the telephone exchange to receive the startling information that the business portion of North Manchester was on fire, and the Wabash fire department was called to the rescue.

“Hastily mounting one of the horses in the city hall, he galloped to the residence of mayor Stephenson to get an order for sending out the firemen, while others aroused Mr. Lamport, Superintendent of the C.W. & M. Railway who promptly ordered an engine out to take the train to Manchester.  At one o’clock the general alarm was sounded, and, long before the locomotive could be steamed up, the firemen had made up the train consisting of a flat car for the engine and hose reel, a box car for the horses, and a coach for the firemen.  The train left the city at 2:25 and made the run in exactly 23 minutes after leaving the yards, and in a very few minutes after the engine was unloaded, was run downtown, and set on the river dock, but by that time the fire had nearly burned out.  The train returned about four o’clock.”

Source: News-Journal, October 26, 2011

Community Invited to Observe Opera Curtain Restoration

The public is invited to the North Manchester Center for History to observe the restoration of a rare early 20th century painted opera curtain, one of only three in the state of Indiana.

Jennifer Hein, distinguished conservator has agreed to allow the general public, local high school and college students to observe her work. She will speak to observers about the conservation process, what degrees conservators have, and how art and history majors might become conservators. She will also discuss some interesting work she has done in the field. After that, Ms. Hein will remove the opera curtain to her Indianapolis studio to finish the restoration. When the work is finished, the curtain will be unveiled in 2012 when the Center For History is re-opened after a winter hiatus.

The North Manchester Historical Society has received a grant from the Community Foundation of Wabash County to cover part of the cost of stabilizing and restoring the opera curtain. Because the curtain is so rare, and a piece of local history, the NMHS has decided to make it the centerpiece of our activities for the coming year. There are plans on having a series of programs, at different venues and for different audiences, to celebrate this rare artifact. Programs will include lectures on opera houses, the restoration process on the curtain, and the history of the businesses that advertised on the curtain. Entertainment programs such as acts that might have been presented in opera houses will be featured as well.

The public may view the restoration work at the Center for History, 124 E. Main Street in North Manchester on Thursday, November 3, 2011 from 1-5 p.m. and on Friday, November 4, 2011 from 10 a.m. to 12 noon. North Manchester historical information can be accessed online at or visit us on Facebook.