Great Western Opera House
On the southwest corner of Cherry and Canal streets in our sleepy village, appropriately enough, an insurance agency fills the void left by one of the most acclaimed points of interest in town. The void was created August 3, 1930 and it is easy to conjecture how the villagers must have felt at the dawn of a depressed time when their acclaimed Opera House literally burnt to the ground.
The Great Western Warehouse was built in 1833 by John Robinson. The grain warehouse stayed in the Robinson family until 1867 when it was acquired by Richard R. Porter. By 1872, the Warehouse was fully converted and the three floors that once stored grains had been transformed. The first floor was occupied by the Bevard Drug Store, the second floor had apartments, which were rented, and the top (third) floor was the actual auditorium and stage space.
Canal Fulton was surely bustling on the opening day of the Opera (1873). By coincidence, the towns first fire engine had arrived (purchased in Chicago) and so the first performers (the “Famous Blakeney Troupe” of New York) paraded into town behind the mayor and town council, and the new fire engine. 50 strong men of Canal Fulton pulled the engine with long ropes, and thus began a day of festivities and gaiety.
Wagons were dispatched to Massillon early in the morning to bring in food and supplies for the hoards of people that made their way into the village. Housewives from Clinton to Manchester were asked to spare any bread, cakes, or pies, and local hotels, restaurants and saloons began to run low on supplies early in the day.
Bedlam prevailed in Bevard’s Drug Store, the temporary ticket office, when the multitudes were told tickets for the evening’s performance were sold out. By nightfall and the start of the show, however, order was restored to the village as many folks who were unable to procure a ticket left town. The evening was a roaring success, as one villager declared in Burton Porter’s Old Canal Days “[it was] the town’s biggest day”.
The entrance to the Opera’s auditorium was on the east side (Cherry street side) of the building, and a set of wide stairs led to a large bay window at the top. The auditorium sat 500, the ceiling soared 25 feet above the awed crowd, and nary a column obstructed the view. A scenic artist from Cleveland was commissioned to paint the ceiling and walls in airy pink tones, and the same artist painted a drop curtain, and moveable stage scenes.
The stage held many types of acts including bands, vaudeville, drama troupes, masquerade balls, and even addresses by William McKinley. The community sorely needed the entertainment and element of culture the opera house brought, and the communities concern for the old building is evidenced by the masses that turned out to fight the blaze that August day.
Glenn Heller and his son Gene built Heller’s Shell Station (gas station) on the lot made vacant in 1931. Finally, in 1990, Stan Snopel’s State Farm Insurance Agency moved to the space. A fitting reminder of the cultural landmark that once stood there.