"Those who gathered in Sandy Burns' North Star Saloon
in 1870 to witness the first set of hurdy-girls ever brought
to Salem to trip the light fantastic were delighted with the
performance and considered themselves well-entertained."
It is scarcely conceivable that Methodist missionaries, who
settled upon the site of a future Salem in 1840-41, were devoted
to the theater. However, they may have condoned the appearance
here of Stephen C. Massett, impersonator, singer, and songwriter.
Massett gave a performance in Marion Countys first Courthouse
in 1855 by the light of six tallow candles. While he was singing
"Light of Other Days", a lusty gust of wind extinguished
Thomans theatrical troupe, first thespians of distinction
known to perform in Salem, arrived here from California by
the overland route on, or about, December 9, 1856. The troupe
consisted of three men and two women, and they performed before
a crowded house for two weeks. The talent was described as
"good", and they were well received by a pioneer
Criticism directed toward Thomans troupe by the religious
folks provoked Editor Asahel Bush of the Oregon Statesman
newspaper to comment upon the mock morality and austere propriety
of the critics. He reminded them that some of their number
were known to spend many an hour less profitably and harmlessly
than those who pleasantly wiled away their time at theater.
In 1860, Editor Bush took to task the Rev. Thomas Hall ("Saint")
Pearne, editor of the Pacific Christian Advocate, who deplored
the exhibition of girlhood upon the stage.
Thomans troupe returned to Salem in 1857, and Editor
Bush again offered favorable comment, urging his readers to
go, see, and hear for themselves. Lizzie Gordon, the leading
lady, later married Charley Stewart, a prominent Portland
saloon keeper. Thoman died at Forest Home for Actors on February
Where Thomans troupe performed in Salem 150 years ago
is not clearly a matter of record. Two halls were available.
Rectors Building, a massive frame structure built in
1851 or 1852, stood on South Commercial Street opposite a
structure formerly devoted to the manufacture of Mr. Sicks
beer. This barn-like building, conceived as a town hall, ultimately
deteriorated and became a Chinese wash house. Rectors
Building burned with great fury and brilliance on the evening
of June 3, 1885. Hop Sing and Hop Lee took a big loss and
some of Salems stiffest shirts were incinerated in that
Nesmiths Building once stood about where the rail freight
depot stands (adjacent to, or upon, an old Indian graveyard).
In pioneer times, the building served as hall for the Territorial
Legislature, and when the session of 1857 attempted to convene
there, they found the place cluttered with discarded theatrical
Salems first regular theater, it appears, was located
in the Griswold Block at the southwest corner of State and
Commercial Streets. This brick structure (perhaps the first
of consequence in Salem) was built by William Griswold in
the mid-1850s. It was enlarged a decade later, and stood until
1940. To a later generation, it was familiar as the Murphy
Block. Griswolds Theater was located on the second and
third floors. The celebrated Julia Dean Hayes appeared here
in Shakespearian roles in 1864. On May 20, 1868, the Irwin's
presented "Uncle Toms Cabin,"
" The Drunkard," and "Angel at Midnight."
Salems dramatic society offered "Kill or Love"
and "The Toodles" at Griswolds Theater on
February 6, 1868. Admission to the dress circle was four bits
(50 cents); six bits (75 cents) reserved a seat, and two bits
(25 cents) allowed one to enter the orchestra pit.
Another pioneer Salem theater was located in the Holman Building
that served as Oregons Legislative Hall from the late
1850s to 1876. A car park now occupies the site. The theater,
located in the two-story section of the structure, was not
large and did not long attract better performances. Here,
in the early 1870s, Bosco the renown illusionist established
his pitch and advertised his Temple of Mystery.
On February 8, 1865, ten men in Salem organized for dramatic
productions. Two plays were announced at Griswolds Theater
for the benefit of Salem Sanitary Aid Society (forerunner
of the American Red Cross in Civil War times). The group called
themselves "Thespians," and returns from their dramatic
endeavor on February 27, 1865, were used for the relief of
two local men injured in firing a cannon at a celebration.
Rental for Griswolds Theater came high. When the Thespians
next staged a performance to raise funds needed to purchase
a fire bell for Salem, they improvised a theater upstairs
in the Moores Building. This structure, until 48 years ago,
occupied the site of todays Pioneer Trust Building.
Here, the late Joseph Baker, Salem esteemed pioneer, performed
in the 1860s. Both the Thespians and their theater in the
Moores Building were of brief duration.
What is a theater? What is a performance? Those who gathered
in Sandy Burns' North Star Saloon in 1870 to witness the first
set of hurdy-girls ever brought to Salem to trip the light
fantastic were delighted with the performance and considered
themselves well-entertained. In those times, North Star Saloon
faced Court Street, being on the alley opposite the former
Millers Store. Before Sandy Burns took over the building
for his not-too-genteel groggery, the structure had served
as publication office for Rev. Thomas Hall Pearnes Pacific
Salem acquired two new playhouses in 1870. One was short-lived.
The other endured for 30 years. Wigwam, or Union House, a
political inspiration designed as a Grant clubhouse, was hastily
erected at the southeast corner of Center and Commercial Streets
in 1868. On October 4, 1870, F.M. Bates the lessee, was busily
revamping the place for theatrical use. A Mr. Melville was
at work on a large drop curtain depicting the Golden Gate
as a center scene.
Wigwam opened as Oro Fino Theater on October 16, 1870, with
seating capacity for 700. "Fernande" was the initial
presentation, followed by "Aladdin," the wonderful
"Scamp"- a burlesque that filled the house. Oro
Fino did not long survive as a theater, and the structure
itself collapsed in a gale, probably during the big blow that
struck Salem on January 8, 1880.
General Cyrus A. Reed, who built the Opera House, had been
Adjutant General of Oregon during the later part of the Civil
War. He came to Salem in 1852. He was a director for the Willamette
Woolen Manufacturing Company. He was interested in womens
rights, spiritualism and dramatics. He was a self-taught artist
who painted the scenes for his theater. He built the Opera
House from funds obtained through real estate development.
At first, he ran both the Opera House and the Reed Opera House
Hotel. The project proved to be more costly than planned and
he had great difficulty in salvaging his interests. Reeds
Building was conceived as a commercial building on the ground
floor and as an office structure for State departments on
upper floors. When it appeared that Oregon would soon build
a new Statehouse, Reed modified his plans and developed parts
of the second and third floors into an opera house. A stage
40-by-60-feet in a auditorium 60-by-70-feet allowed ample
space for dramatic presentations by a large cast. Height of
the ceiling from the orchestra floor was 33 feet. Orchestra
floor and a circular gallery provided seats for 1,500 spectators.
The room was heated by a large stove and gas-lighted for the
From its grand opening on October 9, 1869, with "The
Female Gambler" the Opera House provided a stage for
traveling dramatic troupes, the Salem Dramatic Association,
the Salem Musical Union, the Firemen's Annual New Years
Ball, gubernatorial inaugurations, political meetings, community
celebrations, and fortnightly dances. Many lecturers and entertainers,
and other visitors to the Capital City found a public hall
and an audience at the Opera House. On April 20, 1900 the
Opera House closed because the Grand Theater Opera House,
also in downtown Salem was more readily accessible from the
The Oregon Statesman newspaper for September 28, 1870, commented
that "after a long time without any amusement except
the Legislature, our citizens must, by this time, be in good
trim to attend a first-class theatrical performance."
A performance by the Bird troupe, a full dramatic company,
was set for September 29, 1870, two days after the inaugural
ball for Governor La Fayette Grover, also held in Reeds
"Frances Carroll," a drama depicting stage life,
was the first show at Reeds. The play had been written
for the occasion by Eloa di Carfano, leading man for the Bird
troupe who had the role of Frances Carroll. An admission charge
of one dollar was made for the dress circle, fifty cents if
one occupied the parquet floor. After seeing the show, the
Statesmans critic commented that Frances Carroll had
never before been presented, and implied that it would not
be presented again because the play hardly came up to modern
tastes. Two weeks later, a performance of "Mazeppa"
filled the house, and a matinee for ladies and children was
the talk of the town.
Distinguished troupes, and a good many less than distinguished,
performed at Reeds Opera House during the 1870s, 1880s,
and 1890s. On Saturday evening, September 19, 1891, the Belmour-Gray
Company presented the beautiful and emotional drama "East
Lynne" in five acts. Miss Kate Dalgleish was leading
lady in this "strongest play on record." Affluent
companies arrived in Salem by train; less pretentious troupes
came by boat. Earlier, less spacious theaters either closed
their doors or accepted "penny" exhibitions. For
the next 30 years, Reed Opera House was the show place for
Hometown talent also found dramatic outlet at Reeds.
On January 20, 1897, the elite of Salem for the next two decades
presented the "Queen of Queens." Many are still
well remembered: Jessie Settlemier, Nat Whan, Alfred Hopf,
Jessie Breyman, Ella McNary, Bertha Bird, Dell Harritt, Mrs.
Hortense Kimball, John Giesy, Clifford Kantner, Fred Geibel,
Dell Porter, Mrs. J.H. McNary, Jennet Meredith, Julia Valentine,
Charles Roblin, Grace Babcock, Rose Woodruff, Mrs. Jones,
Minnie Ireton, R. Piby, Alec Davis, Grace Geer, Perry Card,
W. Babcock, Kittie Harbord, Grace Suiter, Oskie Mathews, Mrs.
Fred Wiggins, Mrs. W.C. Kanter, Jennie Booth, Mrs. Hallie
Parrish Hinges, Mrs. H.H. Thompson, Ada Irwin, Winnie Byrd,
Emil Winkler, and Lena Breyman.
A Salem newspaper published a farewell to Reeds Opera
House on April 26, 1900. Patton Brothers, managers since 1896,
opened the theater for the last time with a performance by
the Great Barlow Minstrels. The show was rated among the best
minstrel performances ever seen in Salem. Galleries were packed
and fewer than a score of empty seats remained in the who
house. The "niggers" said the critic, "were
black, their teeth white, and their jokes recent". Between
acts, Hal Patton came upon the stage and made a nice farewell
speech. Reed died in Portland on July 9, 1910.
Grand Opera House in the Oddfellows Building at the
southwest corner of High and Court Street succeeded Reeds.
This new theater, with John F. Corday as manager, opened on
November 30, 1900, with a presentation of "El Capitan"
by the Grau Opera Co. Grand Opera House has served Salem as
a theater for 57 years: first, for opera and dramatic presentation,
later as a theater for road shows and vaudeville and, finally,
as a cinema.
During early autumn of 1904, the New Edison Theater, R.R.
Starkey, manager, opened at 143 State Street. This early "store"
cinema featured the Edisonscope and offered motion pictures
as well as vaudeville. If not the first, then New Edison was
among the very early cinemas in Salem.
Best remembered among early Salem movies and, sometimes,
referred to as the first, was Vaudette Theater opened in the
Wagner Building on Court Street in 1906. Thereafter nickelodeons
and store theaters (so-called because any vacant store room
could be easily and cheaply converted into a cinema) blossomed
and withered in astonishing numbers. Between 1906 and 1913,
there were the following: Bligh, Grand Opera, Ye Liberty,
Gem, Oh Joy, Star, Seymour, Wexford, Masent, Globe, Klinger,
and Palm. Globe, Dreamland, and Oregon may have been new names
for old places under different management.
T.G. Bligh came to Salem around 1908 and started the Star,
a cinema. He raised the admission to ten cents while other
operators continued with the old price of a nickel and stay
as long as you like. After a year, Bligh opened with vaudeville
in the Klinger Block and continued to operate Dreamland, a
ten-cent show. In 1911, Bligh occupied the State Street Block
that bears his name and continued the Bligh Theater there
until July, 1927.
George B. Guthrie, who had operated the Oregon Theater in
the Hubbard Building since election night in November of 1912,
and also Ye Liberty, built Salems celebrated Elsinore
in 1925-26. This monumental structure in Tudor-Gothic derived
its name from a location in Shakespeares tragedy, Hamlet.
Elsinore opened as a silent cinema on May 28, 1926, with a
presentation of "The Volga Boatman" by Cecil De
Mille. "Finlandia" was interpreted upon the Wurlitzer
organ. The Elsinore presented touring plays and vaudeville
acts, including Edgar Bergen and the John Phillip Sousa Marine
Band. In 1932 the building was equipped with sound for talking
Elaborate vaudeville and stock shows were presented at the
Elsinore in the late 1920s. Sir Harry Lauder appeared there
in 1929. During the 1960's, it became home to Salem's Mickey
Mouse Club talent shows.
Frank D. Blighs Capitol Theater was also a construction
of 1926. Open house, without admission charge, was held there
on October 5, 1926. Hollywood, Salems first suburban
theater, was officially opened in mid-Depression times as
a second-run theater with an admission charge of ten cents,
was the last known movie house to start in downtown Salem.
It was located at 2005 N. Capitol Street. The theater was
still operating in the 1960s, but in 1971 it was torn down
as a part of an urban renewal project. Albert Forman of United
Theaters announced on April 27, 1953, that television competition,
coupled with a shortage of film, would cause State Theater
to be closed in about two weeks.
On December 31, 1955, it was announced that downtown Salem
would be served by only two movie houses during the winter
of 1956, that the Capitol and the Elsinore would operate only
at night, except for Saturday and Sunday afternoon matinees.
The Hollywood would remain open as usual. A dearth of good,
first-run pictures and a general lack of patronage was given
as the reason for closure and curtailment. On January 1, 1958,
Hollywood, Elsinore, and Capitol were open at least for evening
presentations. The Elsinore continued as a movie theater until
1993, when it was bought by a non-profit agency and converted
into a performing arts center. The Capitol Theater was torn
down during May/June 2000.
Researched and written by Ben Maxwell
Marion County History, 1958, Vol. 4. Pages 21-28
Capital Journal newspaper, June 1972, special supplement on
Salem's past and future
Statesman Journal newspaper, April, 2001, special 150th anniversary