19th Century Opera House Prevailed as Sensation in Murfreesboro

June 1, 2020, Susan Harber, The Daily News Journal

By the end of the Civil War, popular entertainment was paramount in our country, and small towns built their own Opera Houses during the new prosperity. Rarely were there bona fide operas in these early venues. The concept of this leisure activity was not newfound, as the first Opera House was intact in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1722 entitled ‘The Playhouse.’ George Washington noted in his ledger that opera performances were opposed by religious groups, and this objection continued through the late 1800s.

The opera houses featured stage plays and vaudeville acts, and many later transformed into movie theaters across Northern and Southern states. Politicians declared a multi-purpose objective made economic sense, as the opera house could also house government offices, and revenue raised assisted in paying for city hall. In Rutherford County, access to a railroad enabled a touring opera company to perform.

The opera houses on record had several exceptional owners and managers. Moses Nelson of Bedford County leased the Opera House in Murfreesboro in 1855 before the War Between the States, and he managed the performances very successfully in a turbulent chapter of time. Several dramatic presentations were of high quality, including Tennessee Governor Bob Taylor’s famous speech, “The Fiddle and the Bow,” eloquently delivered at the Murfreesboro Opera House. The charismatic governor was a storyteller; and seating required admission of 50-75 cents. Governor Taylor embodied merit as a superb actor and combined comedy, drama, song and musicianship in his political lecture.

In our historical records, five establishments have served as Opera House. Murfreesboro’s first Opera House was built as a one-story brick building by Ezra Keyser and Tom Clark in 1830, northwest of South Church and Vine Street.

The next theatrical hall was constructed by Wilson Y. Jones on our current North Maple Street. Byrn Motor Company was later located there. The second venture for an Opera house was a disappointment and known as ‘Jones Folly.’

The third hall was constructed by Henry Miller on the west side of Murfreesboro Square. The dramatic New York traveling company ‘Tempest and Sunshine’ performed here. Henry Miller (1859-1926) was a handsome and nationally known prominent actor, producer and manager of Opera houses. The Murfreesboro stage evolved into a skating rink and then burned to the ground.

Edward Leland Jordan, bank president and mayor of Murfreesboro 1868-1869, joined forces with William Yandell Elliott in 1880 and built and managed the fourth Opera House on the Jordan block of the North side of Murfreesboro square. This Grand Opera House was destroyed by the great fire in 1886 with a loss of $15,000 on the investment. Historian Mabel Pittard notes in her historical papers that in the same year Sol Tobias’ clothier shop was located under the old Opera House. Abraham Tobias, an immigrant from Poland, was living in Murfreesboro in 1877 and ran this prosperous business.

The final Opera House was built by P.P. Mason on the West side of the Square and featured avant-garde live performances in the late 1880s. Mason ran an ad that declared ‘Mason’s New Opera House….Stage and Scenery Modern and Complete. P.P. Mason will erect a Large Brick and Stone Office building… Seats 800…Rent or Share. First-class attractions…. A.J. Mosby is Manager.’ P.P. Mason was a savvy city attorney for a decade and owned the Opera House that was later home to the original Princess Theater.

A national theatrical billing at the last Opera House in 1880 proclaimed ‘An opera-house in Murfreesboro, Tennessee is dedicated by John T. Raymond and Company’. Raymond was an acclaimed New York stage actor for 32 years and specialized in low comedy in a professional career. Another prime performer for the Opera House was Nama Collier, daughter of Ingram Blacks Collier III, a wealthy cotton broker and mayor in Rutherford County. Nama was gifted with a beautiful voice and performed in the late 19th century at the Opera House as the character ‘Beauty’ in the musical Beauty and the Beast.

P.P. Mason, an aggressive promoter, opened his establishment in the 2nd story of Cohen Furniture store on the west side of Square. Mason Opera House was staged October 31, 1895 under Knights of Pythias in a five-act tragedy of Sam Davis. Attorney E.L. Whitaker was the actor portraying Sam Davis. This was the very last production at the Opera House.

This facility soon closed when a large and ornate building opened on the corner of 132 West College and Maple Streets. The house was built in 1902 as Fox’s Opera House that included the Sam Davis Building and was later called Sam Davis Opera House.

Entertainment and drama continued in Murfreesboro with the first Princess Theater (1919) at 118 North Church Street. In 1923, Tony Sudekum’s Crescent Amusement Company bought the Sam Davis Opera House on Maple Street and had it renovated. This Princess Theater received guests in 1927. By 1936, Crescent closed the theater to gut and rebuild the ‘New Princess’.

The second New Princess Theater opened December 10, 1936 on College Street and was remodeled in 1945 with closure on February 2, 1972 to build Cavalry Bank. There were 539 seats in this theater. Saturday admission for RC matinees was a cost of six RC bottle caps.

The early 19th century Opera House in Murfreesboro was an original art form of dramatization, vocal performance and concert. Early performances were on a high level of professionalism that continues in our city with numerous productions. We are proud of our heritage of supreme performers, as well as the visionaries, who made it all happen with careful planning and a heart for the creation of artistry.

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