Standing Room Only at the Burtis Opera House

A Note to My Readers:  In the process of researching individuals who provided the nexus of my immediate ancestors in Auburn, New York, I spent some time reading the daily newspapers of their time to get a sense of the events of the day during 1895. It’s always interesting to read about the politics of the day or the great events and very tempting to plug them into that larger perspective. But I decided to slow it down and hang out there…check out the weather, go to a strawberry festival, shop in the old stores that lined Genesee Street and maybe duck into the old Burtis Opera House confident that an unaccompanied female historian would be safe.

Julius_Cahn_s_Official_Theatrical_Guide p 581

Julius Cahn’s Official Theatrical Guide, Volume 14, p 581. 1909

Opened in 1889, the Burtis Opera House was built by Leon H. Lempert & Sons of Rochester, New York and was located at 16 -22 North Street.  The Burtis Opera House was rebuilt from the Corning Hall also known as the Academy of Music. The auditorium was described as a

‘magnificent theater one hundred feet wide, with depth from footlights forty-two feet containing twelve dressing rooms lighted by electricity and all modern and up-to-date facilities”.

Its twin mansard roofs dominated the skyline on North Street.

Robert Bruce Mantell, actor.

Robert Bruce Mantell, actor.

The Burtis became a grand addition to Auburn’s architecture and culture under the management of Auburnian E. S. Newton. The historical society reported the “completion of the Burtis Opera House affords an elegant resort for public entertainments, which ‘fill a long felt want’.” It was dedicated on the 18th of November with the appropriate devotions and addresses by Mayor Wheeler and Congressman Payne. Its first performance was the play of “Montars’ with Robert B. Mantell as its premier performer. It was not his first performance in Auburn and securing him for the opening performer was considered by the trade as they say now…a real ‘get’. A short biography of Mantell describes the Burtis Opera House as “one of the finest and coziest little playhouses in a city of its size in the country”.  Mantell went on to star in silent films and had a long and successful career.

The drama was not confined to the stage.

In 1895 one of Auburn’s finest had just been assigned to the Burtis due to complaints about ne’er-do-wells and updated electric lighting was being installed to further brighten the interior.  An Auburn newspaper had publicly chastised the Burtis’ manager, Mr. E. S. Newman, holding him responsible for the dereliction of the police in not “suppressing the hoodlums who hang around the entrance to the Opera house and calling for police to be regularly assigned to the Burtis”. In December two young thieves Eddie Kaul and Burt McLaughlin, ages six and ten, had stolen personal belongings from the young students attending Mrs. Luce’s dancing academy on Genesee Street. Among the victims was Margaret Downer, the little daughter of William S. Downer, a teller at the Auburn Savings Bank. Mr. Downer was having none of it and put in a complaint at police headquarters. Police were immediately on the trail of the boys who had been observed loitering about the academy and, once identified, the pilferers were traced to the Burtis. The pair were found happily ensconced in the audience and thoroughly enjoying the show having paid for their tickets with the change found in little Margaret’s purse.

Burtis Opera House 1906

Burtis Opera House Auburn Old Souvenir Book (1906)

National trade publications proved the popularity of the opera house among entertainers with the listings and details of their constant bookings.  The New York Dramatic Mirror reported Thomas E. Shea’s Company finished a week’s engagement with seven performances with SRO (Standing Room Only) at nearly every performance. The paid admissions accounted for 7, 684 attendees which broke the record of the house. On the flip side, the New York Philharmonic Club had a single performance.  There with just fourteen souls to exclaim it as an “excellent entertainment”. Auburn had its local talent bookings as well. The above-mentioned Mrs. Luce held her Dance Academy recitals at the Burtis.  In November, the Ladies’ Aid society of the First Universalist Church held four performances of “Ben-Hur” done in pantomime. Interspersed between the vignettes were

drills, marches and quaint Oriental and recherché dances, and the continuous orchestra music, varying with the theme and always subdued, lends an unconscious rhythm to the steps and gestures of the actors. All this, embellished with nearly $20, 000 worth of superb special scenery and rich and striking costumes, and illuminated with magnificent calcium and electrical effects, combines to make it one of the most gorgeous and attractive productions every presented on the American stage.

The Auburn Dramatic Club presented “The Woven Web’ late that fall as a benefit for the ushers of the opera house. On Thanksgiving night, the Burtis was packed and the SRO sign was hung outside its entrance when national sensation Minerva Dorr performed in the comic opera “Niobe”. Ms. Dorr’s reviews called her “charming”, with an “admirable singing ability” and “kept the audience in a continual state of uproar.” A Christmas Day musical event featured the Cornell Musical Club accompanied by several social events…receptions, luncheons…during the day and after the performance a dance was held in honor of the collegians and Cornell graduates from the area and all of Auburn was abuzz with the social festivities.  The auditorium was filled to capacity.

As I read through the schedule of that year…save for two weeks in April when the Burtis ‘went dark’ due to some minor renovation…it was never without a performance…large or small. All of that coupled with political gatherings and the occasional ball and gala with attendees from near and far. Beyond the artistic performances and political rallies and fraternal organization events and conventions, there were illustrated lectures. Another group found the Burtis a successful venue. Peddlers came from near and far selling all manner of merchandise and on occasion – ‘remedies’ – advertising their availability in the local papers. Palmer Cox BrownielandOne particular article in the spring of 1895 about an incoming troupe sparked an image of just what the hurly burly of the train station in Auburn must have been. I realized that Auburn in 1895 was not a sleepy little city, but rather a vibrant, excited and excitable community.

The most remarkable spectacular production yet presented on any stage is Palmer Cox’s Brownies. It is of such a costly and elaborate nature that it can be only shown in the largest theatres throughout the country. It will be seen in all its vast metropolitan entirety at the Burtis Opera house Monday evening, April 22nd. The huge spectacle will be brought to Auburn by special train in fact from its great run of 150 nights at the Fourteenth Street theatre, in New York, where the newspapers and magazines devoted whole pages to the description of its scenes of dazzling splendor. Such grand effects as a thrilling shipwreck, a terribly realistic earthquake and volcano, and the instant destruction of a magnificent palaces are presented in a way that has been hitherto unattempted. The very height of the stage art has been reached in these grand climaxes. The final transformation, “A Night in Brownieland”, showing in marvelous hues the unfolding into glorious life of the moonflower and night-blooming cereus is of such magnificence that worlds fail to describe it. It is well worth coming miles to see. Over 100 of the highest salaried artists are necessary for the gorgeous production. The world famous Brownies are surround by beautiful women. There are large ballets, choruses and wonderful acrobats engage abroad. Among the features are the aerial ballet, danced in mid-air to the most superb calcium effects, and the Oriental ballet, both of which have created furors.

Sounds a bit like Cirque du Soleil and Vegas, doesn’t it?

The glorious Burtis Opera House was demolished in August 1939.

Deborah Martin – Plugh Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

© Copyright 2015. All Rights Reserved.

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