Story and Photos provided by Roger Moore, Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History Director
If the walls at 116 East Ninth Avenue could talk, they would tell stories of fireworks from the roof, hypnotists, theatre groups from the East Coast, and perhaps a juggler or two.
It is almost fitting that one of Stillwater’s oldest buildings is currently home to the Antique Mall, a place where an afternoon can be spent combing through old photographs, books, furniture, records, and everything one might find inside an antique store. During that exploration a curious traveler will notice the strange interior design of the three-story building and might begin to wonder about its history and what it used to be.
What it used to be was Stillwater’s first entertainment venue and civic hall, the Grand Opera House. Although its life was short, the Opera House provided the growing community with a needed cultural outlet and space for public and political meetings, concerts, school plays, graduations, the occasional boxing match, and touring vaudeville shows.
Just under a block to the west, at 9th Avenue and Main Street, Robert A. Lowry is believed to have occupied one of three tents in April of 1889. With Lowry were other prominent names in the founding of Stillwater – Bullen, Eyler, Swiler, Wikoff, Swope, and Barnes. Bringing additional settlers was hindered by a lack of access, the nearest railroad being 20 miles away. That lack of access meant difficulty in attracting students for the new Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College and for basic supplies not available within the community. When the Santa Fe Railroad added a line through Stillwater in 1900, it can be argued that OAMC and the growing town of Stillwater was saved.
That access also meant a window into an entertainment industry that was growing quickly in the first decade of the 1900s. Community leaders envisioned something similar to the Brooks Opera House in Guthrie, built in 1899. Another prominent name in Stillwater history, Louis J. Jardot, led the construction of the structure on East 9th Avenue.
Along with his brother-in-law, James Blouin, Jardot, a mason and brick manufacturer with a plant located at 12th and Western, supervised the $12,000 three-story brick and sandstone building unlike many of downtown’s small wooden storefronts. Blouin financed the venture and operated a furniture store opposite a grocery store on the first floor on either side of the main entrance.
The official opening was 1 July 1901 with the Noble Dramatic Company Band and Orchestra. Prices ranged from 10 cents for gallery seats to 30 to 50 cents for balcony seating or box seats flanking the stage. Three days after opening, a Fourth of July celebration drew an estimated 4,000 visitors as fireworks were shot off the tin roof.
Through its first decade of existence, the Opera House was used for events to benefit local churches and schools and became part of the Oklahoma Circuit that included Guthrie’s Brooks Theatre, the Delaney Theatre in Perry, and an additional 15 or so similarly-sized houses in Oklahoma Territory. Once word spread of an upcoming show, locals would meet an arriving train at the depot at the bottom of the hill on 9th Avenue and escort the performers back up the hill to the Opera House. Early Stillwater newspapers show a variety of entertainments, including the brief existence of a bowling alley on the ground floor in 1904 and 1905. Weekly tournaments offered prize money for champion bowlers.
William Jennings Bryan was one of many orators to grace the stage. No record exists, but some say Carrie Nation and her anti-saloon campaign passed through Stillwater. Silent film star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle entertained locals.
The developing movie business brought about a decline in stage entertainment and Jardot, Tom Hoyt, and C.H. Berry joined to form a new company and the Grand Opera House became the Hollywood around 1913. The venue showed its first silent movie in 1907. By 1910, downtown competition soon came from movie theaters the Alamo (914 S. Main) and the Pastime (612 S. Main). The Camera (719 S. Main) opened in 1913. By 1919, Jardot and his partners abandoned their movie business and the building was leased to J. W. Whipple and C. W. Wakefield and renamed the Isis Theatre. The last recorded community use of the building came in 1932 by the Bethel Tabernacle. Fifteen years passed with mainly pigeons as the sole occupiers before Bill and Gilbert Cliff purchased the building in 1946 and hired Hoke Construction Company to convert the building into a furniture store.
OAMC was a frequent user of the venue and one foundational story in particular remains a significant part of the local narrative. It is recounted in full on the Oklahoma State University athletic website, www.okstate.com:
Victor Herbert inadvertently began an A&M athletic tradition in 1908 at the Opera House. While at Columbia University scouting for a senior class play, H.G. Seldombridge heard “In Old New York,” a song from the operetta The Red Mill. Upon his return to Stillwater, Seldombridge added “In Old New York” to the closing number of a college follies rehearsal at the Grand Opera House. Out of place for a southwestern college, Seldombridge, during a short break in the rehearsal, scribbled alternative lyrics more fitting OAMC. An OAMC letterman representing each sport joined the chorus onstage and the students swayed and sang OAMC! OAMC! We’ll sing your praise tonight. It remains a tradition at OSU sporting events.
The Waving Song
Oklahoma State! Oklahoma State!
We’ll sing your praise tonight;
To let you know where e’re we go,
For the Orange and Black we’ll fight
We’ll sing your worth o’er all the Earth
And shout: Ki Yi! Ki Ye!
In books of fame we’ll write your name,
The Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History is proud to announce that the Grand Opera House will return the last Saturday in February. In 1981, Doris Dellinger and Carol Bormann started a 500-hour project to build a replica model of the Grand Opera House on a one-half-inch to one-foot scale. That same model sat in storage unprotected for a number of years until Barbara Mintmire took on the task in August 2015 of restoration. For more information on Ms. Mintmire’s project, visit https://stillwatergrandoperahouse.wordpress.com/. Through a private donation, the museum has acquired the monies for a display case that will house the model near the entrance of the upstairs Sheerar Cultural and Heritage Center, a venue with a similar mission to Stillwater’s first civic hall.
The Stillwater Museum Association will host a reception on February 25th followed by a short variety show with the help of the Stillwater High School drama department. There might be a juggler, a magician, or a rendition of the old “Waving Song.” Like the Grand Opera House of the early 1900s, you never know what might grace the stage on a given Saturday night.
For more information about the Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History, a 501 © 3 non-profit, call 405-377-0359, visit the website at www.sheerarmuseum.org, “like” us on Facebook, or stop by the museum at 702 South Duncan in Stillwater.
Carmichael, Deborah A. “The Griffith Brothers Circuits of Oklahoma: Film Exhibition Success Outside the Hollywood Studio System.” Ph.D. dissertation, Oklahoma State University, 2007.
Dellinger, Doris. “Stillwater’s Grand Opera House.” Payne County Historical Review 4 (Spring 1984): 1-18.