Once Upon a Time at the Opera House

This excerpt from “Once Upon a Time at the Opera House – Drama at Three Historic Michigan Theaters, 1882-1928” by James Berton Harris © 2019, was published by Michigan State University Press and is reproduced here with permission.

The city of Coldwater is situated in what was once a region of prairie and forests inhabited by the Potawatomi Indians. In 1821, Chief Topinabee sold the area to the U.S. government, and eight years later, the Territorial Legislature of Michigan designated it as Branch County…

Soon the settlement evolved into the village of Lyons that was platted by Joseph Hanchett and the Reverend Allen Tibbits. Tibbits, a Methodist minister, was born in Lyons, New York. His youngest son, Barton Smith Tibbits, was the man behind the opera house that bears his name.

Lyons underwent a name change in 1833. Two theories have been put forward to explain the decision to name the settlement Coldwater. One story is that the original settlers were Methodist teetotalers, and perhaps cold water was their beverage of choice. A somewhat more credible reason is that the city’s name is the English translation of a Native American term for the region that means either “lake water” or “cold water”…

Branch County became known as a center for horse breeding and training and supported a number of racetracks… By the early 1880s, the city could claim several new industries, the arrival of the Bell Telephone Company, and approximately six thousand residents…

Henry Clay Lewis determined that an opera house could be constructed for approximately $16,000. He intended to contribute half that amount himself and to solicit the remaining portion from one or more of the city’s prominent citizens. To that end, he sent a letter to the man who was, perhaps, the city’s most prominent citizen, Barton S. Tibbits, a cigar factory owner who, at that time, was also the city’s mayor. Lewis stated that he was prepared to invest $8,000 in the project if Tibbits would assist in procuring the remaining half from “property owners of the city.”

Apparently, the property owners considered the endeavor to be too great a financial risk and were reluctant to jump on board. Of the $8,000 Tibbits had agreed to raise, after three days of soliciting he had donations … that totaled only $2,441.25. There were contributions of up to $200 and one person gave just $6.25 to the enterprise, but Tibbits was not deterred from his newly acquired mission. He decided to fund the entire enterprise himself without Lewis’s $8,000 and announced, prophetically, that he would “build a proper opera house if it bust my factory.”

By November 23, 1881, just three weeks after Lewis had initially approached him about the project, Tibbits purchased land across the street from his cigar factory on Hanchett Street, hired an architect, and was ready to break ground. The final price tag for the opera house is estimated to have been between $25,000 and $30,000 and includes the cost of construction as well as the purchase of equipment and furnishings necessary to create the state-of-the-art playhouse. Barton S. Tibbits picked up the tab.

When the Tibbits Opera House opened, the stock of scenery and properties was considered to be the largest and finest in Michigan. …on September 21, 1882, when the Coldwater opening night patrons, filled with anticipation, approached their new playhouse, what did they encounter? From the street, a few steps led to an area approximately two feet above the sidewalk. There were four sets of wooden and glass double doors across the front of the building; two sets led directly into a vestibule with the box office and manager’s office on the left and a smoking room on the right. Two stairways, one on each side of the lobby, led to the balcony’s dress circle and gallery seats. Heavy wooden doors covered with dark terra cotta leather trimmed in gold separated the vestibule from the auditorium.

To be certain that patrons knew the identity of the gift horse that had provided this treasure to the city, B.S. Tibbits had his initials emblazoned on the opera house’s glass doors as well as displayed on the roof of the building. If that weren’t enough, his portrait was printed on every ticket…

From 1882 until 1885, Barton S. Tibbits and his staff enjoyed some degree of success: 

Manager Tibbits was made happy again last evening, his opera house being filled with a large, fashionable, and appreciative audience. (Coldwater Republican, April 10, 1883)

Success was fleeting, as on June 24, 1885, Tibbits had no choice but to sell the opera house. The buyers — a German saloon owner, Joseph Henning, and his wife, Amelia — purchased the playhouse for $13,000, about half of Tibbits’ initial investment …Henning began to exploit the building’s potential. He converted the basement into a saloon, with an attached billiard parlor and bowling alley… Henning also expanded the range of events by offering wrestling and boxing matches, circus acts, and marionette shows, but continued presenting lectures, concerts, and amateur talent shows. He also continued to book professional minstrel shows and numerous touring theater productions…

Despite Henning’s attempt to diversify both the activities within the building and the programming of events, the opera house was still operating in the red. In July 1889, the Courier ran the following letter to the editor from Joseph Henning explaining his dire financial situation and suggesting a solution:

Nearly five years ago I purchased the opera house for $13,000…I am offered for the property nearly as much as I gave and should I sell Coldwater will be deprived of what she seemed to most need eight years ago…a first-class opera house….I earnestly hope the men of means in our city will form a stock company, purchase the opera house and use it for just what it was originally intended, a place of amusement for our citizens.

A few days after Mr. Henning’s letter appeared in print, the Coldwater Republican reported that its readers had responded, and the consensus was that the opera house should “not be diverted to any other purpose as we need such a building and we should not soon get another.” The Coldwater Republican not only concurred with this sentiment, but also encouraged the plan to sell opera house stock at $25 a share. In the end, Joseph Henning
decided to struggle on…

James Berton Harris is professor emeritus in theater at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He has been active in both academic and professional theater for 45 years. “Once Upon a Time at the Opera House: Drama at Three Historic Michigan Theaters, 1882-1928” is his first book. It received a 2019 State History Award bestowed by the Historical Society of Michigan.

Illustrations by  G. Odmark

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