Gas and electric lights glowed as local performers took to the stage of the new Grand Opera House for the first time.
A packed house greeted actors and actresses as they presented “State’s Evidence,” a six-act play written by Samuel W. Nichols. The opera house, located on the northeast corner of Jacksonville’s public square, opened Jan. 25, 1892.
Local theater lovers were without a suitable auditorium in which to stage plays and musicals between the burning of Strawn’s Opera House in the summer of 1887 and the opening of the Grand Opera House four and a half years later.
The Grand Opera House was the dream of J.H. Osborne, a Jacksonville businessman, and together with wealthy brothers Charles and William Routt, the local theater became a reality.
The four-story building was constructed of stone and brick, with some of the work being done by F.W. Menke Stone Co. of Quincy, the same contracting firm which helped build the Greene County Courthouse in Carrollton, Westminster [now First] Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville and the Jacksonville Public Library.
The Grand Opera House measured 180 feet by 90 feet and originally contained seven stores, a basement restaurant, 60 offices, as well as a large theater lobby and an auditorium with a seating capacity of nearly 1,400. Patrons had their choice of floor, gallery or private box seating.
The builders went all out in decorating the theater, which had a lobby with natural wood on the walls, a tile floor and a frescoed ceiling.
The theater was lighted with 500 gas fixtures and nearly as many electric lights on the stage and in the hall.
“The crowning glory of the house, however, is the stage. It is such a one that it has excited the surprise of every professional dramatic artist who has visited it, and caused Sol Smith Russell, the leading comedian, bar Joseph Jefferson, on the American stage, to exclaim that it was, if anything, a little too large,” wrote a Jacksonville Journal reporter. The stage dimensions were 40 feet by just over 62 feet. Russell spent some of his boyhood years in Jacksonville.
Over the years, the Grand Opera House stage served as a platform for many famous people, including three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, Adm. George Dewey, socialist Eugene V. Debs, poet James Whitcomb Riley, actress Sarah Bernhardt and blues musician W.C. Handy.
In addition, the opera house building contained a hotel, also named the Grand, in the early 1900s.
The Grand Opera House began showing motion pictures in the early 1900s, and in 1927 the building became the Illinois Theatre, which showed some of the first sound films, better known as “talkies,” in Jacksonville.
The building was demolished in early 1938 and replaced by the current Illinois Theatre building.
“Throughout its history [the Grand Opera House] has been the scene of notable events of Jacksonville life,” wrote a Jacksonville Daily Journal reporter in 1937, when it was announced the building would be razed. “Great actors and actresses have played behind its footlights. Many a home talent show has brought to its stage the best local entertainers.”
This Way We Were story was first published Jan. 19, 2004.