By Stephen T. Jackson
Madison County Historian
---- — ELWOOD — The Elwood Opera House on Elwood's South Anderson Street operated from October 1891 to October 1902. During its 11 years of operation it was host to many of the biggest entertainment names of the time in the country.
The Elwood opera houses
The Elwood Opera House was truly a magnificent building and it is still with us. Today, very little remains of its original interior appearance when it opened for business in October 1891. Outside is a somewhat different story.
Located on the southwest corner of South A and South Anderson streets in Elwood, the front side of the three-story building retains near the top the words "OPERA HOUSE" embossed in stone proudly proclaiming for all to see the home of the once-famous theater.
The main entrance was on Anderson Street in the center of the building, as it is today. Immediately beyond the entrance is a stairway climbing to the second floor. Those stairs today, although different in appearance from the 1890s, bear evidence of the wear they incurred over a century ago when they were used by theater goers ascending them to attend the performances at the opera house on the second floor.
One additional unique feature of the Elwood Opera House can be seen on the South A Street side near the rear of the building. A set of double arches appear in the brickwork suggesting that once they had a purpose long since forgotten. An examination of an 1892 opera house drawing reveals the intended purpose.
Since the opera house was located on the second floor, it would have been quite difficult to deliver items such as stage scenery, props, and other large equipage necessary to support the major productions that played there.
To circumvent this obstacle the builder, Gustav V. Kramer, provided for the delivery of such items by creating two openings on the north side underneath the west end of the building directly below the stage area on the second floor. Wagons that brought the production's equipment from the train depot to the opera house could drive underneath the stage area and unload. When empty, the wagons pulled forward a short distance and then made a ninety degree turn and exited the building through another set of arches located on the west or backside of the building. Presumably freight elevators carried the delivered items to the second floor. The procedure was then reversed when the production was done and ready to depart Elwood for the next destination.
Another example of Kramer's ingenuity was the installation of two floors in the theater, one over the other. While the top floor was slanted towards the stage to provide patrons with the best possible viewing experience, the floor underneath was flat. This floor was there in case someday the theater would be used for other purposes requiring a flat surface. As it turned out, he knew what he was doing.
The theater was located on the second and third floors. The interior dimensions were approximately 62 feet wide by approximately 150 feet in length, including the stage, for approximately 9, 300 square feet.
The theater, which could seat 850 people, was managed by the builder's son, J.A. Kramer. The drawings of the interior do not reveal if all the seating was on the main floor. But, since the building was three stories high it is a safe assumption that there was balcony seating available on the third floor.
During its 11 years of operation the Elwood Opera House was host to a variety of famous personalities from the entertainment world. Many who performed there are memorialized today through an attractive display of photographs on the second floor exhibited by the building's current owner, Randall Hall.
While not familiar names today, they were certainly popular, well known and huge entertainment stars during their era. To name only a few from the vast array of photographs that have been neatly hung by Keith Israel, the great-great grandson of Gustav Kramer, they are: Frank Keenan, Maurice Barrymore, Eddie Blondell, William S. Hart, Marie Doro, Charlie Grapewin, Margaret Wycherly, Charlie Murray, and Fatty Arbuckle.
Other famous people visited the opera house as well. John L. Sullivan, who is recognized as the first Heavyweight Champion of gloved boxing, participated in an exhibition fight there during his farewell tour after his career ended in 1892.
On Sept. 13, 1892, future United States President William McKinley delivered a speech from the balcony of the opera house to a crowd assembled on Anderson Street during Elwood's celebration of the opening of the American Sheet and Tin Plate plant.
Elwood's population in 1892 was reported to be 4,500. Three years later it had risen to a reported 12,000, and four years after that in 1899 it was 14,000. The rapid increase in population fueled by the gas boom had Gustav Kramer thinking the city would need a new opera house that could accommodate the increasing population and the accompanying growth in attendance at his opera house.
During 1902, the new Kramer Grand was constructed at the southwest corner of South B and South Anderson streets one block south of the opera house. As spectacular as the Elwood Opera house was, the Kramer Grand was even more so.
Builder George H. Johnson erected an eleven-hundred seat theater that would dazzle today's theater goers. A color scheme of oriental red, gold and old ivory was used throughout the spacious interior. The ceilings were in Dutch pink and sky blue panels.
The stage was 60 feet wide and 40 feet from curtain line to the back wall. The stage opening or proscenium arch was 36 feet wide and 30 feet high. Trap doors were located in the floor to be used for various purposes. Two drop curtains operated on ball bearing pulleys making them absolutely noiseless. Nine men were required to take care of the stage during a performance.
The foot-light trough contained 60 electric lights with another 45 in each of the four overhead border lights. In all, over four hundred lights illuminated the theater. Red, white and blue colored lights were used to create moonlight and sunrise effects.
The fall of the parquet main floor was designed so that every part of the building could be viewed from every seat. The foyer was a foot above stage level with the floor sloping until it was five feet below the orchestra pit.
The private boxes on the main floor each had a private entrance. They were furnished with high back, row seat willow chairs. The main floor and balcony were fitted with modern opera chairs, while benches, much like those used in churches were in the gallery.
The basement contained 10 dressing rooms and property rooms essential to the theater's successful operation.
The Kramer Grand opened on Thursday evening, Oct. 30, 1902. The last show at the Elwood Opera House was on Monday, Oct. 27. This was purposely planned in order that there would be no interruption in entertainment in Elwood.
In 1907, Kramer sold the opera house to the Mason' s who made it their home for the next 92 years.
For almost 17 years the Kramer Grand enjoyed its place as Elwood's finest theater. But, at three in the morning of Friday, Sept. 26, 1919, a fire broke out that reduced the once magnificent structure to ruins. It was never rebuilt.
For more information visit the Madison County History Center, 15 West 11th St., Anderson, Monday-Wednesday-Friday, 9-4. Phone 683-0052.