Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick
OPERA HOUSE PERFORMANCES IN BONAPARTE (September 25, 2003)
On the first Saturday morning of every month, "Breakfast on Main Street" is served to the public in the old Opera House in downtown Bonaparte. Over the years this building has provided the setting for many events including business meetings, graduations, weddings, banquets, fund-raisers, soup suppers, Christmas parties, and the list goes on and on.
The Opera House building was originally intended to be a center for the performing arts, and is actually the third of its kind in Bonaparteís history. The first was built in 1872. The opera house was on the lower floor and the Masonic Temple upstairs. Later it became the Record-Republican newspaper building.
On January 1, 1880 a masquerade ball was held at this opera house; another on March 20, 1882. A cosmopolitan comedy group presented a temperance drama called "Broken Promises" on November 6, 1880. From what I can tell, at least the opera house portion of this facility was ruined in a fire that burned two-thirds of the block in July, 1886.
The Haney Opera House was completed on December 1, 1887 and was destroyed by fire on July 21, 1894. During its brief reign, it was a very busy place. "Soldier of Fortune" played here in April of 1888, as did an opera called "Olivette" in April of 1893. Entertainment events included a supper and social on December 27, 1890; the Fourth of July celebration of 1891; and several elaborate masquerade balls.
Minstrel shows were also the vogue. These shows are sometimes made up of medieval singers and poets, but the stylish American minstrel shows performed at the Opera House were "Uncle Tomís Cabin" type plays featuring black American songs or jokes and "black-face" depictions of Negro people by white performers.
On the same location as the Haney House, the grand Whiteley Opera House was completed on March 26, 1895 and one of the first productions in the new setting was "Romeo and Juliet" by the Owen Company.
On March 28, 1913 a western comedy that illustrated Montana in 1876 called "On the Little Big Horn" was a big hit. But one of the greatest hits was "Womanless Wedding" in 1917. Harry Kemp sang Bring Back My Bonnie To Me while pretending to have hay fever, and the bride grabbed the groom and completely lifted him off the floor!
"Bachelor Honeymoon" was a musical comedy performed in April, 1917. Before that, "Hello Bill" was a sell-out in December, 1911; "Evangeline" came to Bonaparte in February, 1912; and "Josiahís Courtship" appeared in April, 1912. On April 10, 1914 a very popular minstrel show included such songs as: Rag-time Soldier Man, The Port of Missing Ships, Kentucky Babe, What do you Mean Youíve Lost Your Dog?, Sympathy, Rag-time Regiment Band, Iím Gonna Stand on Solid Ground, Back to Dear Old Dixie, and Floreiene, with Old Black Joe as a finale. One-act plays also from April, 1914 included "An Oyster Stew," "The Virginia Mummy," and "The Pugilist and the Lady."
The Whiteley Opera House was the scene of music and reading in December, 1916, but soon it became the center for many other types of activity as different proprietors purchased the building and its uses changed.
For example, the building became an Oriental Theatre by 1937. During this era, "Rose of Washington Square" and "Secret Service of the Air" were performed in October, 1939. Movies were shown here during and after World War II. By 1950, this building was the home of the Jubilee Restaurant and later became the Boston Store (a variety store.)
Since the 1980s, the old Whiteley Opera House has enjoyed a revival as a community center. Perhaps the Villages of Van Buren and Bonaparte Main Street Association should work together in an effort to obtain historic preservation grants to revive the stage and upper theatre level, so that this beautiful building could once again accommodate live performances including operas, recitals, concerts, and even the ever-popular dinner theatre. As the countyís only authentic opera house still in existence, complete restoration would greatly improve Van Burenís entertainment potential.
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick