by Nancy Bell | Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation
In April 1898, the Vicksburg Opera House burned down, leaving the city without a theater.
The Vicksburg Dispatch reported that “many top-notch theater companies will soon be signing their contracts for the upcoming fall and winter season. Unless Vicksburg moves on its own and a contract is made for a new opera house, so that reservations can be made with first-class companies, we won’t have attractions here. “
Two groups then supported the cause to build a new theater: the Lee Lodge Knights of Pythias and Tom Searles and Associates. Both of them asked Vicksburgers to pay for the subscriptions that would be used to construct the building.
Searles won and the paper reported in October that “after taking a look at the location of the new Vicksburg theater, we are confident it is excellent. It is very close to the city center, one square from Washington Street, on Walnut and half a square from the Carroll Hotel.
“It is therefore very convenient for residents and visitors. Where it will be placed, the building can be made so safe from fire or accident, that panic of any kind should be impossible during a show should an accident of any kind occur. It is not as crowded in a brick block as would be the case on Washington Street, and will therefore have all the necessary exits on the front, back and sides.
“For the same reason, it can be ventilated more excellently and can be used all year round. As it is not located in a corner lot, the sides and back of the building will not need to be decorated and the money that would be used this way on a corner lot structure can be spent on the front and back of the building. inside of this.
The contractor was George H. Johnson and the supervising architect was F. Button, both of St. Louis. The building was steam heated and equipped with electric and gas lighting. It had a capacity of 1,400 people and, according to the Dispatch, “there were many exits and that in the event of a fire an audience, no matter how large, would be able to get out of the house in a very limited time.”
In order not to miss the upcoming attractions, Searles secured the Southrons Armory, built a stage and seating, and began bargaining with touring shows, the first being presented in November 1898. Work quickly continued on the new theater with most of the manpower provided by local subcontractors and supervision of St. Louis people.
The inauguration took place on April 26, 1899 and featured a double billboard of the Andrews Opera Company of New York performing “The Cavalleria Rusticana” and “The Pirates of the Penzance”.
A wide variety of acts were enjoyed by the Vicksburgers, including the Weidemann Comedians; Mr. Montaville Flowers, an imitator; a recital by Corinne Moore Lawson; minstrel shows; Maro the Magician; “The Three Musketeers”; “Julius Caesar”; one thousand and one nights and “Alice in Wonderland”.
In addition to professional acts, the theater was used by local schools for their plays and graduations, political gatherings, club reunions and even a valley fashion show in 1923. There were also films including “The Crisis” in the 1917, which was shot in Vicksburg.
One of the more interesting acts was the Great Madison Square Cycle Whirl in 1902, which featured a wooden oval on which cyclists rode inside. An article in the Vicksburg Herald reminded its readers that manager TM Searles, of the Walnut Street Theater, had asked his clients the following: “Women must take off hats, chew illegal tobacco, no smoking, women will bestow a favor. not starting to put on their hats until the end of the last act and the gentlemen will stay graciously in their places until the curtain falls.
In 1921, the theater was owned by the Saenger Amusement Company, which also owned the Alamo and the Bijou at the time. Around 1924, the facade of the theater was renovated and the rear was slightly enlarged towards the east. The building was destroyed in the 1953 tornado, killing five children. The lot is now a modern building and a parking lot.