What do William Shakespeare, Jefferson Davis, and a razorback hog have in common? The opera, of course!
In 1884, Charles Weimer hired N.C. Stubblefield to construct an opera house on the east side of Court Street, between Pine and Church. The wooden structure had windows lining the front and sides for ventilation with double doors opening directly into an auditorium filled with wooden benches. Kerosene lamps were used as footlights and hung from the walls with tin reflectors, providing additional illumination.
Many shows at the opera house featured home-grown talent. Various groups performed well-known plays, musicals, and operas, from Shakespeare to Gilbert and Sullivan. Area musicians held concerts, including the Orlando Cornet Band, the Mendelssohn Club of Orlando, the Orlando Symphony Orchestra, Glee Club, and more. Traveling shows and professional entertainers also graced the stage, including the world-famous opera singer Emma Thursby.
A wide variety of community events took place at the opera house, from political speeches to religious services. When former President of the Confederate States Jefferson Davis died in New Orleans in 1889, Orlando residents held a memorial service at the opera house, though the Civil War had ended more than two decades earlier. So, it might not be surprising that some of the most popular traveling performances were minstrel shows, which consisted of music and skits mocking Africans Americans, usually by white performers in blackface.
This American-born genre of entertainment was popular from the mid-nineteenth century all the way through the early twentieth century, reflecting American attitudes about race at the time. Reviews praised minstrelsy and “burnt cork artists” (so named because of how they applied their black makeup) in Orlando newspapers as late as the 1930s.
According to E. H. Gore’s “History of Orlando” (1949), the opera house was not financially successful. In an effort to stay in business, it became a skating rink with feature events to draw crowds. In one memorable incident, someone had the bright idea to bring a wild razorback hog and “chase him around the rink with hockey sticks.” Despite obvious safety concerns, a flood of people turned out to watch the spectacle. The skaters formed a circle around the hog, and when it was let loose, it was so frightened by the lights and noise that it simply laid down and refused to move. The stunned animal had to be carried out of the building, much to the crowd’s disappointment.
In its later years, the venue hosted wrestling matches and eventually transformed into a movie theater. But in 1911, J. B. Magruder built the Lucerne Theater, a modern opera house and movie theater right next door. By 1915, Orlando’s first opera house had closed, the building remodeled into an automobile repair shop.
Though the building no longer exists, Orlando’s original opera house remains a testament to how the city has grown and changed. Today, Orlando residents still flock downtown to the movie theater to see the latest summer blockbuster – just a stone’s throw from where Orlandoans gathered nearly 150 years ago to enjoy the latest hit show of the nineteenth century.
Lesleyanne Drake is the Curator of Collections at the Orange County Regional History Center.