(Detroit Publishing Co, 1905/Special to The Pulse)

In Pensacola, Opera House was center of society in Gilded Age

The Gilded Age in Pensacola was a time of economic prosperity and rich culture. For many Pensacolians from the late 19th through the early 20th century, it was an era of ambition and opportunity. As the southern boomtown benefited from the rich exploitation of natural resources such as the yellow pine, the small boomtown rose to become an economic engine in the South and an international city of influence.

If there was an embodiment of this rapid rise to economic potency, it may very well trace back to the Pensacola Opera House, where historians say Pensacola society developed its true character and personality. Opened in 1883, it was considered one of the grandest additions to Pensacola’s “new prosperity.” In fact, it would soon be known as one of the most admired opera houses in the entire South.

Today, this monument to Pensacola’s lumber boom is a relic of our distant past, having been destroyed by multiple devastating hurricanes nearly a century ago. But even today, while its architectural grandeur is no more, the story and legacy of its mark on the City of Five Flags rings on.

The Pensacola Opera House, circa 1904. (Detroit Publishing Company/Special to The Pulse)

Below are excerpts on the history of the opera house from “A Lumber Boom Theatre: The Pensacola Opera House, 1883-1917,” written by Jack L. Bilbo:

As the dawn of the Gilded Age began in 1880s, Pensacola, a town known for one of the finest natural harbors in the nation, experienced an economic boom in yellow pine lumber that was unprecedented in its already centuries-old history.Between 1875-1895, more than one billion dollars worth of yellow pine lumber was exported through the Port of Pensacola. With the subsequent prosperity and wealth there emerged a culture reflecting a society of rich and affluent Pensacolians who possessed the means and time to enjoy the fruits of their profits.

A handful of ambitious men, given free reign and without government regulation, employed their wits and capital to build what would become the core of a growing metropolitan area. One of these “personalities of note” was the flamboyant Daniel F. Sullivan, the most powerful of Pensacola’s timber tycoons. With controlling stock in the First National Bank, he had personal assets of over $25 million in today’s dollars. Sullivan quickly realized the potential for theatrical entertainments amid the general boom. In June, 1882, he announced his intention to construct a “grand Opera House” as an essential addition to Pensacola’s new prosperity. Sullivan secured the services of Theodore Weber, the artist who had designed the Tarragona, to supervise the interior decorating of the new theatre. Weber then hired Joseph Hart, a scene designer from Chicago, as his assistant. The architect for the opera house was A.V. Clubbs, a renowned architect who designed many of the buildings of the era in Pensacola.

On January 4, 1883, the new Opera House was formally opened. The day after the official opening, the Commercial provided these physical descriptions:

The building is two story brick, with mansard roof reaching a height of sixty feet from the ground. The building fronts the public square 105 feet and Government Street 145 feet. The main entrance to the theatre is from Jefferson Street, and upon entering the spacious doorway, your eye rests upon the box office … On either side of the box office is a stair which leads up to “ye gallery of ye gods” … On again reaching the landing we proceed to enter the theatre, but are meanwhile conducted to another stairway entirely independent of the other which leads to the dress circle. The Opera House also had the “latest improvement in folding chairs.”

An article appearing in the newspaper two months after the opening provided more details about the interior:

Every precaution and latest improvement have been made available in the acoustic arrangement of the different parts of the auditorium, and repeated trials have evinced the skill and wisdom of the architect and builders in this respect. All angles have been avoided, and a large dome over the center not only adds to the beauty of the interior but modifies and controls sound in such a way as to make the voice at ordinary pitch,clear and distinct in every part of the vast auditorium.

After the facility was completed, Sullivan moved the offices of his First National Bank into some rooms on the first floor. Symbolically and literally, the Pensacola Opera House was located at the very seat of financial power in Pensacola.

The Pensacola Opera House in the early 1900s. (Special to The Pulse/Pensacola Historical Society)

Sullivan secured the services of Captain R. J. Lowden of New Orleans as the first manager of the new playhouse. Lowden was an experienced performer as well as a businessman. Born in Nova Scotia in 1844, he pursued careers as an actor, singer, journalist, adventurer, commercial agent and government officer. He had been to sea, hence the honorific title of “Captain.”

In addition to booking professional productions, the Opera House was used extensively by the community, bringing in considerable revenue from rental fees charged for amateur theatricals, balls, lectures, promenades and even carnival processions. Captain Lowden soon made the Pensacola theatre an active unit in the southeastern touring system, known as the Southern Theatre Circuit. This network included playhouses in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida. The director of the Circuit was Jacob Tannenbaum who also managed the Mobile Theatre, only sixty miles from Pensacola. Through negotiations with Lowden, “Genial Jake” brought Pensacola into a “sister city” arrangement with the Mobile playhouse. Thus, Pensacola was assured of receiving the same productions as Tannenbaum’s theatre.

In 1885, Captain Lowden returned to New Orleans, leaving the management of the Pensacola Opera House in the hands of L. L. McConnell and C. C. Yonge, Jr., two local businessmen. Yonge had been a member of the Pensacola Dramatic Association and was the town’s postmaster. Neither gentleman had any experience in professional theatrical affairs. Initially, the two managers ran an efficient operation but, due to alleged booking mistakes, were forced to compensate for extra expenses by raising ticket prices. Consequently, some patronage dropped off and the profit margin for each show was reduced. To alleviate this problem, Tannebaum decided to replace Yonge and McConnel with a more experienced man.

The new appointee was John M. Coe. Assuming control in the spring of 1891, Coe managed the Opera House until the fall of 1908, a period spanning the theatre’s most profitable and productive years. Under his leadership, the Pensacola playhouse presented more than 900 professional attractions, averaging fifty-three shows per year. Coe’s seventeen years as manager comprised one-half of the entire period of the Opera House’s operations. As a partner with Jacob Tannenbaum, Coe was granted full authority to book productions for.

The team of Coe and Tannenbaum was part of a larger system controlled by the Klaw and Erlanger enterprises, one of the most powerful theatrical firms in the country. On 31 August 1896, Klaw and Erlanger became part of the Theatrical Syndicate, a trust which originated with the objective of acquiring booking control over all the first-class playhouses on the nation’s touring systems. Two advantages were promised to its members: theatres would be guaranteed the best attractions at the most suitable prices and times, and producers could be confident that they would receive the most favorable bookings.

The most productive years for the Pensacola Opera House extended from 1896 through 1909, essentially the same period as the Syndicate’s most comprehensive control. In this time, Pensacola patrons witnessed 738 professional productions, averaging fifty-seven per year. 

The Pensacola Opera House, seen from Plaza Ferdinand VII. (Pensacola Historical Society/Special to The Pulse)

In any case, business at the Opera House was going well, as evidenced by the decision to remodel and enlarge the structure. In the early summer of 1905, construction began on changing the entire interior of the Pensacola playhouse. The seating capacity was increased from 1,200 to 1,400 and the balcony became “second class” with choice seating placed downstairs. The remodeling also included the installation of steam heating.

At the beginning of the 1905-1906 season, the press announced that the theatre had been “transformed from floor to dome and when the old patrons enter they will scarcely realize that they are in the same old Pensacola Opera House.’ One particular transformation created a new section in the parquette, known as Section 3. Completely cordoned off with a golden rail and equipped with a separate entrance to the outside, this division of about fifteen seats was especially reserved for the “ladies of the evening” or the demimondaine of the town. While this special section was designed to segregate the “ladies” from the rest of the house, such an attempt at separation actually drew more attention to them. The presence of the ladies was noticed by a substantial number of sailors, farm boys, Greek immigrants and railroad workers.

The typical audience of the Opera House was a microcosm of Pensacola society.

Located near the heart of the red light district, the Opera House drew some patronage from the bordellos, making the playhouse a place where all classes could come together under one roof to view a theatrical event. The typical audience was a microcosm of Pensacola society. The growth of the brothels, fifteen in all, seemed to parallel the best years for the Opera House. The “houses” were the by-products of a boom period and were tolerated as a necessary evil. “Because Pensacola had been exposed to a variety of mores, religions and ideas, it could better counteract the typical pressures in a southern community of this time toward conformity and intolerance.”

The variety of patrons who attended the Opera House made it a profitable venture for Manager Coe. After investing wisely in the enterprise, he eventually became part owner of the Pensacola theatre. In 1908, Coe helped to organize the Pensacola Amusement Company, a firm with offices in the Brent Building, which became the official proprietor of the Opera House as well as a booking agency for other local “entertainments, including vaudeville and motion picture houses.”

Because of these added responsibilities, Coe retired from active management of the Opera House, leaving the job to his veteran stage manager Nick Smith. Smith had served under Coe since 1891, acquiring valuable experience on “both sides of the curtain.” An innovator in theatrical affairs, Smith was well suited to his new function as Opera House manager. Assuming control in the fall of 1908, Smith managed the Opera House through the spring of 1913. His tenure marked a period of transition for the Pensacola theatre from one of Syndicate dominance to one of increasing competition from another theatrical trust, the Shubert organization.

By 1909, a number of Shubert productions and other non-Syndicate attractions had played at the Opera House. Such a condition was partly due to fewer Syndicate shows being made available, thus making it possible for the Pensacola playhouse to accommodate other attractions. In any event, the number of total productions per year which had peaked during the Syndicate years began to gradually decline after 1910. In the summer of 1913, Smith resigned his position as Opera House manager and moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, where he purchased a motion picture house.

The next and last manager of the Pensacola Opera House was Sidney Levy who took control in the fall of 1913. As a young man. Levy had served as an usher at the Opera House. From those early days, he progressed to theatrical businessman, producer and playwright. Since 1908, he had worked with the Shubert organization in New York City. As the local boy who made good. Levy was a popular choice for Opera House manager. The Journal commented that he was “a man of much experience in this line and will devote all of his time to the business.” Ironically, Levy’s full attention was hardly needed since, by the time of his appointment, business at the Pensacola theatre had been substantially curtailed. Manager Levy could do little to check the forces of decline which were beyond his control. One of those forces was the competition from other entertainment forms, particularly vaudeville and the motion pictures.

By 1913, Pensacola had five playhouses — the Empress, Bonita, Isis, Star, and Bijou — presenting films and vaudeville to family audiences at much cheaper admission prices. In addition, Pensacola had a leading “honky-tonk” Black theatre which presented Negro performers exclusively. This establishment, known as the Hottentot, began attracting substantial numbers of Black patrons, thereby diminishing the Opera House audience. Coupled with the competition from other entertainments there emerged a problem originating from within the legitimate stage itself: the lack of fresh, new plays.

Pensacola audiences had become so familiar with many of the shows that they’re “getting bored” with excessive repetitions. Hit attractions began to lose their magic after repeated engagements. Such conditions reflected the theatre nationwide.

One factor, however, which particularly affected Pensacola was the abrupt termination of the city’s flourishing timber trade. In 1914, the lumber boom and its accompanying prosperity, begun over thirty years before, came to a virtual standstill. Timber resources had been almost depleted. Local land speculation suffered, causing the Pensacola State Bank co close. Moreover, the city lost a bulk of its international market when the Liverpool firm of Crow, Rudolph and Company, a large English timber company through which a large portion of Pensacola’s exports was funneled, announced that it could not meet its debts. The First National Bank, which had invested nearly half a million dollars in this firm, was shut down.

(Detroit Publishing Co, 1905/Special to The Pulse)
The Pensacola Opera House once loomed proudly over Plaza Ferdinand VII. (Detroit Publishing Co, 1905/Special to The Pulse)

This action, following upon the Pensacola State Bank failure, spawned a depression in Pensacola from which the city would not fully recover for over forty years. The fate of the Opera House seemed to parallel general economic conditions. In 1914, the playhouse endured one of its worst seasons. During its final three years, the old theatre seemed to languish in uncertainty.

A major hurricane of 1916 damaged the facility, but the playhouse persisted for another season. On 28 September 1917, the Opera House was again struck by a ferocious storm. This time the destruction was even more extensive:

At five o’clock yesterday afternoon portions of the fly gallery of the Opera House was [sic] partially demolished by the wind, as it was made of sheet tin, and as soon as one section was forced off, it carried posts of the wooden framework with it, and the Plaza was strewn with tin splinters from the gallery. Parts were flung as far as the west side of Palafox Street by the gale. A related article added a sardonic note: To see a sober pedestrian fleeing up the street before a belligerent piece of tin roofing, both piloted by a ninety mile gale, undoubtedly has humorous features which are entirely lost on the chief actor in the comedy.

After evaluating the extent of the damage, the Opera House ownership decided to salvage the remains of the building instead of expending the necessary funds for the substantial repairs needed to restore the facility.

The Pensacola Opera House had been a boom town phenomenon; its years of operation corresponded almost directly to the timber trade which flourished for over three decades. During those years, the citizens of Pensacola supported a theatre which remained in continuous operation.

For a town that had an average population of only 17,000 people, it is remarkable how well Pensacola supported a playhouse the size of the Opera House. Although not always filled to capacity, many attractions played to large audiences. Citizens from all classes were regular patrons. Considered a fashionable place, “representing the social registry,” the theatre, notwithstanding, catered to all tastes and entertainment preferences with considerable success.

Despite its relatively small size, Pensacola was known as a good theatre and was considered one of the best stops on the Southern Theatre Circuit. Because of its strategic location, Pensacola audiences saw many of the theatre’s leading stars in over 1,600 productions throughout its history.