The McClure Opera House, Kewanee’s first large public hall
The hard work of growing Kewanee began soon after its founding in 1854. There were houses and businesses to build, water to transport, then wells to dig, fences to install, crops to sow and to harvest, trees to plant – as one of the early Kewaneeans told an Eastern friend, asking him what they did for ‘fun’ in the meadow, “[b]minus you, we can’t find half the time for everything we want to do, and I find myself wishing every day that there were ten days in a week!
But as busy as they were, these villagers knew they needed the roses of life as well as bread. So they found many ways to “have fun”. There was a high school where the issues of the day were discussed and debated. Churches have organized fairs and organized other activities. They put on dances, listened to local musicians, and watched their own theater groups at Kewanee House and a few smaller venues, such as Cutter’s Hall, built on the second floor above businesses in the developing city.
Civil war then became the nation’s overall focal point. But after the end of the war, cities large and small began to build opera houses, public halls and auditoriums of fraternal lodges as meeting places for any event that required hundreds of seats or more, such as discounts. of diplomas, celebrations, lecturers, performers – even a periodic opera!
Likewise, Kewanee’s businesses built larger rooms on top of them, groups such as the Odd Fellows built spaces for larger gatherings, and the large space of Kewanee’s new public library was used for events (the latter was even listed as an ‘opera’ in the city directory, even though it was really just an open space).
In the early 1890s, the Kewaneeans were calling for an opera house. But it was not until 1898 that George A. Johnston of St. Louis decided to build such a building at 116-118 N. Main Street. Frank A. Cahow was appointed director, but during construction Cahow bought the holding from Johnston, who stayed on to work as a stage artist. (Johnston was later responsible for other opera houses in the Midwest.)
The interior of the opera house was 60 feet wide and had a seating capacity of 900. It was lit by both gas and electric lighting. The stage was 32 feet wide, 31 feet deep and 26 feet high. There was a rig loft, three hatches, a stage hall, and space for a seven-person orchestra from Kewanee’s hometown. Construction costs totaled $ 22,000.
Before opening night, the hall was sold out and there was a flower race to celebrate the first performance. On September 6, the new opera house opened, featuring Lincoln J. Carter’s Civil War drama, CHATTANOOGA, about the early days of the war.
Tour companies that had bypassed Kewanee in the past now made regular stops in the town, and local talent had a nice performance hall. The opera was well received by the city, and it was a resounding success.
But six months later, in February 1899, the opera burned down. Only the walls remained standing. (Later that spring, Library Hall also suffered a fire but survived, albeit in need of major repairs.)
In April, construction was underway to rebuild the opera house. Johnston was again in charge of construction, and soon Cahow hired a new partner, Kewaneean Thomas McClure. They promised a bigger and more striking building. Among other improvements, the capacity was increased to 1,000, the building was enlarged and the stage was enlarged.
By the fall, the new opera house was finished and the Kewaneeans enjoyed a wide variety of entertainment. Closed during the hot summer months, the opera house has booked 70 to 90 outdoor performances per year while reserving local talent from organizations such as the YMCA.
McClure eventually bought Cahow’s stake and the business became McClure’s opera house.
Thomas McClure died in 1903 and his son, Fred, took over the management of the opera business. But in 1907, the Kewanee Opera House was incorporated and bought the operation, changing the name to Kewanee Opera House.
In 1910, Frank Thielen of Aurora and Willard J. West of Kewanee became the managers of the opera house. They carried out a complete overhaul of the building and the equipment, with the aim of offering vaudeville and “moving images”.
Upgrades included painted frescoes on the walls, cork rugs laid on the aisles and stairs, new “art” doors were installed and a new stage floor was laid.
On June 6, 1910, the new Grand Théâtre opened its doors. Thielen and West’s opening night entertainment included four different films, a troupe of cyclists, a trio of singers and a lady impersonator.
The Grand Theater continued for another decade and a half. But newer and better sites were built, and in 1926 it was sold to WT Pierce and Fred Shaver. The building was rarely used except for occasional speeches and boxing matches. In 1930, the Grand Théâtre was vacant.
In 1933, the empty building was razed to the ground by fire. Homeowners estimated a loss of $ 60,000 to $ 80,000, but insurance would cover less than $ 10,000. They had no intention of rebuilding.
While the building and business operated for most of their lives as the Grand Theater, many still remember Kewanee’s first opera house, his first major entertainment venue, as McClure’s Opera House. At the time of its construction, it was a great structure for a growing city.