Looking Back: The Theater That Saved Vicksburg Entertainment – The Vicksburg Post

Nancy Bell | Vicksburg Historic Preservation Foundation

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 contracts for next fall/winter season. Unless Vicksburg moves forward and a contract is awarded to build a new opera house so that bookings can be made from first class companies, we won’t have any attractions here.

Two groups then took on the construction of a new theatre, the Lee Lodge Knights of Pythias and Tom Searles and Associates. Both asked the residents of Vicksburg to pay fees to be used to construct the building.

Searles won, and in October the newspaper reported that “Looking at the location of the new theater in Vicksburg, we are sure it is excellent. It’s very close to downtown, one square from Washington Street, Walnut Street, and half a square from the Carroll Hotel.

“Therefore, it is very convenient for residents and guests. Where it is located, the building can be made so safe from fire or accident that during the performance there can be no panic of any kind if any accident occurs. It is not crowded into a brick block like Washington Street, and therefore will have all the necessary exits in front, behind and on the sides.

“For the same reason, it is better ventilated and can be used at any time of the year. Since this is not a corner lot, the sides and back of the building will not need to be decorated, and the money that will be used in this way on the construction of the corner lot can be spent on the front and inside of it.”

The contractor was George H. Johnson and the lead architect was F. Button, both from St. Louis. The building was heated with steam, had electric and gas lighting. It held 1,400 people and according to Dispatch “there were many exits, and in the event of a fire, spectators, no matter how large, could get out of the house in a very limited amount of time.”

In order not to miss the upcoming sights, Searles anchored the Southerners Armory, built a stage and seating, and began contracting traveling performances, the first of which was presented in November 1898. Work on the new theater proceeded rapidly, with much of the workforce provided by local subcontractors and oversight by people from St. Louis.

The grand opening took place on April 26, 1899, and featured a double billboard from the Andrews Opera Company in New York performing The Rural Cavalry and The Pirates of Penzance.

Residents of Vicksburg enjoyed a wide variety of performances, including Weidemann comedians; Mr. Montaville Flowers, impostor; recital by Corinne Moore Lawson; minstrel show; Wizard Maro; “Three Musketeers”; Julius Caesar; Arabian Nights and Alice in Wonderland.

In addition to professional performances, the theater was used by local schools for their plays and graduations, political rallies, club meetings, and even a valley fashion show in 1923. There were also films, including The Crisis of 1917, directed by Vicksburg.

One of the most interesting events was the Great Cyclic Vortex in Madison Square in 1902, which featured a wooden oval with cyclists riding inside. An article in the Vicksburg Herald reminded readers that Walnut Street theater manager T. M. Searles made the following requests to his patrons: the last act is not over, and the gentlemen will kindly remain in their places until the curtain falls.

In 1921, the theater was owned by the Saenger Amusement Company, which also owned the Alamo and Bijou at the time. Around 1924, the front of the theater was refurbished and the rear extended a little further east. The building was destroyed by a 1953 tornado, killing five children. There is a modern building and a car park on the site.

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