LOOKING BACK: The venue that saved Vicksburg entertainment – The Vicksburg Post
By Nancy Bell | Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation
In April 1898, the Vicksburg Opera House burned down, leaving the city without a theatre.
The Vicksburg Dispatch reported that “many top-class theater companies will soon be contracting out for the upcoming fall and winter season. Unless Vicksburg moves and a new opera is contracted, so bookings can be made with first class companies, we won’t have any attractions here.
Two groups then took up the cause of building a new theater – the Lee Lodge Knights of Pythias and Tom Searles and Associates. Both were asking the Vicksburgers to pay subscriptions that would be used to construct the building.
Searles won, and the newspaper reported in October that “After examining the location of the new Vicksburg theater, we are satisfied that it is an excellent theater. It’s about the center of town, one block from Washington Street, on Walnut, and half a block from the Carroll Hotel.
“So it’s very convenient for residents and visitors. Where it will be located, the building can be made so secure against fire or accident, that panic of any kind should be impossible during a performance if an accident of any kind should occur. It is not crammed into a block of bricks as it would be on Washington Street, and will therefore have all the necessary exits front, back and sides.
“For the same reason, it can be better ventilated and can be used in all seasons of the year. Since it is not on a corner lot, the sides and back of the building will not have to be ornate, and the money that would be used that way on a corner lot structure can be spent on the front and inside of it.
The contractor was George H. Johnson and the supervising architect was F. Button, both of St. Louis. The building was heated by steam and had electric and gas lighting. It had a seating capacity of 1400 and according to the Dispatch “there were plenty of exits and that in the event of a fire an audience, however large, could get out of the house in a very limited time”.
In order not to miss upcoming attractions, Searles secured the Southrons Armory, built a stage and seating, and began contracting traveling shows, the first presented in November 1898. Work continued rapidly on the new theatre, the majority of the labor being provided by local subcontractors and the supervision by people from Saint-Louis.
The grand opening took place on April 26, 1899 and featured a double bill by the Andrews Opera Company of New York performing “The Cavalleria Rusticana” and “The Pirates of the Penzance”.
A wide variety of acts have been enjoyed by the Vicksburgers, including comedians Weidemann; Mr. Montaville Flowers, an impersonator; a recital by Corinne Moore Lawson; minstrel shows; Maro the Magician; “The three Musketeers”; “Julius Caesar”; Arabian Nights and Alice in Wonderland.
In addition to professional acts, the theater was used by local schools for their school plays and graduations, political rallies, club meetings, and even a valley fashion show in 1923. There were also films, including “The Crisis” in 1917, which was filmed in Vicksburg.
One of the more interesting acts was the Great Madison Square Cycle Whirl in 1902, which featured a wooden oval that cyclists rode inside. An article in the Vicksburg Herald reminded its readers that manager TM Searles, of the Walnut Street Theatre, had asked his patrons the following: “Ladies must take off their hats, chewing tobacco is forbidden, no smoking, the ladies will do a favor by not starting to put on their hats until the last act is over and the gentlemen will be good enough to stay in their places until the curtain falls.
In 1921, the theater was owned by the Saenger Amusement Company, which also owned the Alamo and the Bijou at the time. Around 1924, the front of the theater was updated and the rear was extended a little further east. The building was destroyed by the 1953 tornado, killing five children. The lot is now a modern building and parking lot.