Looking Back With Aurore Eaton: The Manchester Opera House makes its stunning debut
The Harrington-Smith Block (also called the Opera House Block) on Hanover Street in downtown Manchester was completed in January 1881. The west side of this imposing structure was owned by Edward W. Harrington, Jr., and his family, and the east side by Hillsborough financier John Butler Smith. The block’s store fronts were quickly rented out to a variety of businesses, including dry goods, stationery, shoe, hat, and drug stores. The offices on the upper floors were leased mostly by law firms and fraternal organizations.
A 14-foot wide arched entryway in the center of the building provided access to the new Manchester Opera House, which was constructed between the two sides of the business block. The theater was financed by a corporation. The stockholders included John Smith and the Harrington family members. Edward Harrington, Jr., was appointed as the Opera House’s treasurer and manager.
The largest theater in Manchester until this time was Smyth’s Hall on Smyth’s Block on Elm Street, built in 1853. When Abraham Lincoln spoke there in March 1860, the room was filled to capacity with around 1,000 people, including standees. The Manchester Opera House far exceeded that capacity, with 1,500 seats plus standing room for 250.
Architect John T. Fanning had visited the finest theaters in Boston, New York, and elsewhere, and had incorporated the best ideas he could find into his design for the Opera House. The facility included 11 dressing rooms, storage space for props, and well-appointed rest rooms for the audience members. To protect against fire, five hydrants with hoses attached were installed on and near the stage. In case of emergency, the audience could quickly evacuate to the outside of the building through double doors on either side of the auditorium.
The theater was equipped with modern heating and ventilation systems. The stage, auditorium and other spaces were well lit with gaslight. The large gas chandelier that hung above the audience and the gas border lights along the stage were turned on by an electrical current generated by a man turning a crank.
The comfortable chairs were made of stained cherry wood with iron supports, and upholstered in “leatherette” (simulated leather). The walls were painted a warm orange/cinnamon color with decorative trim in bright colors that glowed under the gaslight. Above the proscenium arch was a three-dimensional harp, griffins, and life-sized figures representing Tragedy and Terpsichore (in Greek mythology, the muse of dance).
The curtain that hung behind the main drop curtain was decorated with a portrait of Shakespeare. The stage was 40 feet deep and 70 feet wide, with a height of 60 feet.
Above the stage was a spacious fly gallery where scenery and curtains were stored and lowered. The stage manager could communicate from backstage to the crew in “the flies” through a bell system and speaking tubes.
The magnificence of the Opera House was astounding. It seemed unbelievable that such a gem could be found in a city with a population of only 32,600.
The Mirror and American newspaper, which was located next door on Hanover Street in the Post Office Block, commented, “To those who visited the theatre for the first time it was a revelation of beauty and luxury. That Manchester should possess a temple of amusement rivaling the leading theatres of Boston and New York was a fact that few people were prepared to fully believe. The sumptuous elegance of the surroundings, the bright and attractive appearance of the whole interior, provoked general comment, and won many deserved compliments for the enterprising and public-spirited gentlemen who furnished the means for its erection.”
The first performance in the Manchester Opera House took place in front of a full house on the evening of Monday, Jan. 24, 1881. The production was “Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy” by British playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton, with the celebrated dramatic actor William E. Sheridan playing the lead.
In 1884, the Harrington-Smith Block would become the home of the Manchester Union newspaper (predecessor of the New Hampshire Union Leader), so it was perhaps fitting that the first play presented in the Opera House would include these immortal words, uttered by Sheridan as Cardinal Richelieu: “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
Next Week: The Manchester Opera House and the golden age of live theatre.
Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, e-mail her at email@example.com.