It is doubtful that there are any Denisonians alive today who remember the arrival of the talking motion picture shows and I’m certain that no one remembers the opera houses that preceded the movie theaters in Denison.
Denison was blessed with several of these opera houses in the 1800s and early 1900s to prove that everyone here during those days wasn’t rough and tough and toting a gun like so many stories we’ve heard about those days. The saloons on Skiddy Street (you will remember that that street now is a much milder Chestnut Street) were where the high-kicking dance hall girls were among the places to go for entertainment.
The opera wasn’t the only entertainment in the plush opera houses. Just about any musical group that came through Denison stopped to perform here.
According to Billy Holcomb in his book, “Theater Row,” the Dilworth Opera House at 101 West Gandy was the first to open in 1873. Billy credited an old Katy Railroad magazine with that information.
Until reading about the Dilworth, I always thought that the Nolan Opera House was first. I guess the Dilworth got a jump on Nolan, who opened his opera house in 1875 on the second floor at 200 West Main. The Great Southern Saloon was on the first floor when the Dilworth was on the second.
That location is familiar to me because my dad, Lucious Hord, operated Loi-Mac Pharmacy there for a number of years and I worked there during my high school days. Hanna Drug, R.E. Fehr and Furman Drug and Penn’s Pharmacy were other drug stores that operated at 200 West Main as well as at least one other business.
Col. John B. McDougall, who had his hands in a lot of business adventures in Denison in the early days and whose home now is a Bed and Breakfast on Morton Street, opened an opera house in 1881 that was much more elaborate than Nolan’s McDougall added his own name to his establishment and it became McDougall Opera House. It closed in 1907, according to Holcomb’s book.
The Denison Opera House continued to thrive well past the turn of the century. After Milton L. Eppstein bought it in 1895 and remodeled it many top acts came to town and performed there until it closed in the late 1917.
Not long before the opera house closed, a teacher’s convention was scheduled in Denison. Special programs were planned for Friday and Saturday matinees at the Denison Opera House.
A singing act of five brothers had been hired by the manager to perform at the Friday matinee. The group had been touring around the country, but was pretty much “down on their uppers,” as Claud Easterly, long-time Denison Heralds editor. Described them.
“Denison got a lot of entertainers for one night stands,” he said. “As the railroad ran through town from Oklahoma City to Dallas or Houston, entertainers would stop over for a night or two to pick up a little much needed cash,” he said.
This particular group had been in Galveston and came through Denison on a Katy train.
Somewhere in Texas they lost their beautiful soprano singer, Jenny, who always sang a little off key. She was good looking, except that her left eye was cockeyed and wandered all over the place, according to information in a book, “Harpo Speaks” published by Doubleday in 1950. A special peek-a-boo wig had been made for Jenny to cover her wild eye, the book said.
When Jenny disappeared, there were no girl-singer replacements, so the guys yelled for Mama Miene (better known as Minnie) who wired Aunt Hannah in New York to send money and to join the group.
The five brothers, Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo and Gummo Marx did their song routine in a comedy act for the teachers and the audience loved them so much that the opera house manager asked them to play a second night for another $100 bill providing they didn’t repeat the same show.
Even though they had only one program, they agreed, but had no idea what they would do. Groucho had told the manager they knew 100 songs and could fix up a new batch. But they had exhausted their repertoire at the teacher matinee.
Groucho then had an inspiration. “Why not put on School Days?” he offered, adding that he had seen an old Gus Edwards routine at least once in a school assembly room. They called their act “Fun in Hi Skule.”
There were no wigs in Denison, so Aunt Hannah made Gummo a wig out of cotton and unraveled pieces of rope. It sat on his head like a bird’s nest for many years.
After their performance, everything else they had done was forgotten and the act took Texas by storm. They were in such demand that for a while they thought of sending for the rest of their family and settling down in Texas except that they didn’t like the summer heat.
The Denison Opera House is where they Marx Brothers, as we remember they hilarious team, performed the way their talent became known.
Harry Tone and Hiram Brooks opened what probably was the last opera house in 1909. It was called the BrooksTone Opera House and was located at 517 West Main. It later became a movie theater.
I’d love to hear any other information about any of these opera houses.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.