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Washington County, Illinois

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Nashville "Opera House"
Early photo of Nashville Opera House Later photo of Nashville Opera House
Photographs from Harrl Beatty Photograph Collection; Courtesy of Larry & Jo House
Looking Back from Washington County, Illinois
Washington County Historical Society
Vol. 1, No. 2, 1977, pgs. 3-5
Article written by Ruth Berneuter Watts, 1977
Nashville "Opera House"
      My earliest recollections of the old Opera House go back to about 1902 at which time it was already an old building. It stands on the north side of St. Louis street in the 100 block facing south. After running the abstract of Block 4 Lot 7, a vacant lot, I found the record of its first purchase was in 1830, after which it was owned by a succession of Washington County names. I found, however, no mention of when the present building was erected, but it must have been approximately 1880. The EIMER family, who by the way were from Belleville, didn't purchase the property until 1900. The abstract was well stocked with names of early Washington County owners, many of whom lived within my memory, and whose names were English, Irish, and Scottish. The Germans came a little later and had not yet become members of Community Business and/or Politics, nor were they an Anglo American speaking group at this time. The abstract made very interesting reading.
      This sketchy sequence of events between 1830 and 1900 shall serve as an introduction to the following story.
      The first steps leading to the floor level of the present ZIEGLER Flower Shop and the STEGMAN TV store have always led tot eh floor level of the old Opera House building as well. The second floor was reached from these by a divided stairway consisting of a series of steps and platforms rising at a very steep angle which made the whole system a dangerous fire trap. The ticket booth was in the center of the divided stairs on the first level. On either side of this stair and ticket cubicle was business space as it is today. To the left was "WESTERMAN'S Butcher Shop." To the right "BONNER'S Home Bakery and Ice Cream Parlor," furnished with marble topped tables and vienna chairs in the back room. Mr. WESTERMAN was famous for a hot Bologna Sausage which he made several times a week and sold over this whole area. He guarded his recipe jealously until in later life he confided in the man, CLARENCE McFERON, who divulged it to no one. Clarence was a meat cutter and subsequent owner of the market. On "sausage days" the hot steaming links would be brought into the front shop on a long pole which was slipped into slots of a leaning ladder-like contraption that stood against the wall. Other fresh pork and beef quarters were hung there also on very large hooks. When Mr. WESTERMAN moved across the street, into what is now the News stand, the Kroger company introduced Nashville to its first chain store located in the meat market's old quarters. Rent was $25.00 per month. The "Home Bakery" continued some years longer at its old stand. It was here the young people gathered for ice cream sodas in the evening after performances or during dancing. As for the second floor, that was the "Theater," which had chairs for approximately 150 persons.
      At the rear of this small auditorium was a pot-bellied stove. In the winter months it was often red hot, the heat being somewhat diverted by a huge metal screen surrounding it. Above the stove along the south wall was a small balcony where the "cheap seats" were occupied by the town's rowdies at 10 to 15 cents apiece. Such shouting and stamping of feet you wouldn't believe. I understand the balcony is still there with some of the original benches. The Main Floor seats sold for 25 to 35 cents.
      Once, while attending a current performance, I recall a member of our local fire department walked out on the stage and announced that "In case of fire there are plenty of exits (accent on last syllable) by way of side windows, to the roofs of one-story buildings on either side of the hall."
      This so-called Opera House owned and operated by Mr. Eimer was the only space in town large enough to accommodate a substantial crowd, consequently it was used by all organizations who needed a stage for a given event. "Opera House" couldn't have been more of a misnomer for its actual use. No Aida or LaBoheme ever echoed from its walls, only Godfrey SCHROEDER's rendition of "Asleep in the Deep," the stock "between the acts" entertainment, made the walls tremble. he had a booming bass voice that hit the "Deep" with a resounding operatic low note.
      High School and Eighth Grade graduation exercises were always held in this building as well as traveling stock company shows, home talent and high school plays and the first moving picture ever shown in Nashville. The picture was a documentary of Pres. Theodore Roosevelt's very famous "African Big Game Hunt." The pictures were faint and jerky, shown by the way of a hand operated projector, but we all marveled at this new invention. In later years I read that the Roosevelt home at Oyster Bay on Long Island Sound was filled with mounted heads of animals shot by the President.
      The seating arrangements in our theater were made up of wooden chairs fastened together in blocks of four by a strip of wood under their seats. All the local dances were held here also, in which case all chairs would be slid off to the sides of the room or stacked on the stage. Mr. Harry GEWE was a local jeweler who, with his wife Laura, loved to dance. Their son, Gene, (our local optometrist) was an infant so they would bring him with them, spread a blanket on a block of chairs where he slept through the gayety of countless soiries. No one had ever heard of a baby sitter.
      The stage had two backdrops, one a landscape the other of an indoor wall with a matching pair of wings for each, as well as a hand-drawn curtain. The two dressing rooms (his and Hers) back stage, were furnished with a table, chair, a very small mirror and one carbon bulb hanging by its own twisted green cord from the ceiling. To complete these meager furnishings there was also a galvanized container which (at the risk of being indelicate) I shall glorify as plumbing. On the walls beyond the wings were the bills and melodramatic posters of the last visiting stock company's advertising, a few remnants of which were still left a few years ago. In fact my son David and Mr. Grover BRINKMAN took pictures and slides of them, some of which are in our collection at eh Historical Society Museum. A rickety, narrow stairway along the outside north wall of the theater probably met the minimum requirements of a highly improbable fire code.
      these then are a few nostalgic thoughts of my childhood and early youth as I remember them, hopefully without too many inaccuracies. The last of the EIMER descendants sold their interest in the old building about 1925 after which a succession of owners followed and the hall no longer served any specific purpose except to house the ghosts of the happy and carefree years preceding World War I.

© 2016     Wayne Hinton
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