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Salem's Theatrical History
 

"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 County’s 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 the candles.

Thoman’s 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 audience.

Criticism directed toward Thoman’s 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.

Thoman’s 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 2, 1886.

Where Thoman’s troupe performed in Salem 150 years ago is not clearly a matter of record. Two halls were available. Rector’s 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. Rector’s 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 Salem’s stiffest shirts were incinerated in that combustion.

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 programs.

Salem’s 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. Griswold’s 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 Tom’s Cabin,"
" The Drunkard," and "Angel at Midnight." Salem’s dramatic society offered "Kill or Love" and "The Toodles" at Griswold’s 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 Oregon’s 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 Griswold’s 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 Griswold’s 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 today’s 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 Miller’s 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 Pearne’s Pacific Christian Advocate.

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 women’s 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. Reed’s 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 first performance.

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 Year’s 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 street level. 

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 Reed’s Opera House.

"Frances Carroll," a drama depicting stage life, was the first show at Reed’s. 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 Statesman’s 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 Reed’s 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 Salem.

Hometown talent also found dramatic outlet at Reed’s. 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 Reed’s 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 Oddfellow’s Building at the southwest corner of High and Court Street succeeded Reed’s. 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 Salem’s celebrated Elsinore in 1925-26. This monumental structure in Tudor-Gothic derived its name from a location in Shakespeare’s 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 movies.

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. Bligh’s Capitol Theater was also a construction of 1926. Open house, without admission charge, was held there on October 5, 1926. Hollywood, Salem’s 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

Bibliography:
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 supplement.

 

 
Additional Links
 
 
Interior Capitol Theater, 1940
Interior Capitol Theater, 1940
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County courthouse drawing, 1852
Drawing by artist Al Priem of the Marion County Courthouse in 1852. In 1855 this became the location of first documented theater performance in Salem.
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Asahel Bush II
 Editor Asahel Bush II
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Griswold-Murphy Building, 1940s
Griswold-Murphy Building circa 1940s when it was torn down. Griswold Block, Salem’s first consequential brick building, housed the town’s first regular theater in the 1860s. Julia Dean Hayes performed here in Shakespearean roles in 1864. Griswold Building, better known to later generations as the Murphy Block, stood at the southwest corner of State and Commercial Streets.
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Holman Building
Holman Building served as Oregon’s Legislative Hall and Capitol from 1857 to 1876. In pioneer times, a theater was located here. After 1865, the theater was considered second-rate, and 1870 found Bosco and his pitch, the Temple of Mystery, showing at the Capitol Building. A car-park now occupies the site.
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Union House
Built about 1850 on the corner of Commercial and Ferry Streets, it burned in May, 1863.
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Reed Opera House
Reed Opera House
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"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." 
 
Reed Opera House today.
Reed Opera House today.
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Grand Opera House
Grand Opera House in the Oddfellow’s Building at the southwest corner of High and Court Street succeeded Reed Opera House. This new theater opened on November 30, 1900, with a presentation of "El Capitan"
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Vaudette Theater
Vaudette Theater, 1906
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Ye Liberty Theater
Ye Liberty Theater
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Wexford Theater, 1915
Wexford Theater, 1915
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Elisnore Theater program, 1926
Program from the Elsinore Theater, October 8, 1926 program.
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Hollywood Theater, 1971
Hollywood Theater was the only theater built outside of the downtown area in the 1930s. Shown is a picture of the Hollywood Theater around 1960. It was located at 2005 N. Capitol Street. A line of people stretches around the corner to see the movie ""Night Passage" and the Harlem Globe Trotters. The three story building appears to be made of cement. The theater was torn down as part of an urban renewal project in June 1971.
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Capitol Theater
Capitol Theater
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