CHICAGO JUNCTION OPERA HOUSE c.1912. A description of this theatre as published in the 1904-05 edition of "Julius Cahn's Official Theatrical Guide" Chicago Junction population: 4000. Chicago Theatre. F.H. Layer, manager. Seating capacity: 600, Prices 25c, 35c, and 50c. Illumination: gas and electricity. Voltage: 110. Amperes: 25. Electrician: Sanders. Width of proscenium opening: 22 ft., Height: 12 ft. Footlights to back wall: 20 ft. Curtain line to footlights: 2-1/2 ft. 12 grooves. Height of grooves: 13-1/2 ft. Grooves may not be taken up flush with fly gallery. Distance between side walls: 45 ft. Height to rigging loft: 14 ft. Height to fly gallery: 13 ft. Depth under stage: 4 ft. One trap. Theatre on second floor. Property manager: Edgar Haines. Stage carpenter: Joe Guyer. Five in orchestra. Orhestra Leader: F. C. Stevens. Printing required: 8 stands, 25 3-sheets, 100 1-sheets, 50 half-sheets. Dates should read: "Chicage Junc. Opera House." Transfer: Dewitt Co., Express, United States. Physician: T. C. Miller. Lawyer: W. J. Burwell. Newspapers: "Times," "Plymouth Advertiser." Hotels: Commercial: $1.25, $1., Franklin: $1.50, $1.25. Railroad: B & O, agent: A. T. Bell
The 1894 "Official Program" reproduced here pre-dates F. H. Layer's role as manager, but it is the only program I have found. Note that "Maple Opera House" apparently was an early name for the "Chicago Opera House."
F. H. Layer's stationery for the Chicago Opera House
THE CHICAGO OPERA HOUSE|
aka HOFFMAN'S HALL
aka MAPLE OPERA HOUSE
The era from 1903 to 1911 was a time without radio, without television, and without video stores. Phonograph records, both disc and cylinder types, were just beginning to be developed for primitive, non-electric gramophones and graphophones. Also, short five- and ten-minute silent moving pictures were just beginning to be available as extra novelty features during magic lantern shows.
Thus, the primary form of entertainment in small-town America was live entertainment, such as home talent shows, lecturers, travelling vaudeville shows, minstrels, musicals, and dramas. To accomodate this need many towns established a theatre and community center, often called an "opera house."
Chicago Junction, Ohio (renamed Willard, December 1917) was no exception, and the variety of live entertainment provided by the "Chicago Opera House" was unbelievable by late twentieth-century standards for a town with a population of 3000. The original Chicago Opera House (known later as Hoffman's Hall or Maple Opera House) contained 440 removable seats and offered some form of activity almost every night, including dances, dance classes, concerts, banquets, wrestling, and illustrated lectures. It was truly Willard's "window to the world."
When I found that my great-grandfather, Fred Henry Layer, had managed the Chicago Opera House, I sought every source of information available about his career from approximately July 1903 to December 1911. Then one summer I compiled this information into three cross-correlated lists published in a book format with family photographs and original newspaper clippings of many events. This book is now on deposit at the Willard Public Library. These lists compiled in 1988 have been updated at this website, and newly located photographs have been included.
Sadly, FHL died at a young age and left no memoirs--I am sure he had stories to tell! The best related first-hand description that I have found--and highly recommend--is the chapter on Xenia, Ohio's Opera House in Helen Hooven Santmeyer's "Ohio Town" (Harper & Row, New York, 1984). It covers the same era and a few of the same travelling road shows.
Joseph F. Dush's book History of Willard, Ohio (Dush, 1974) also fills some of the gaps in the story, as does Verna William's wonderful first-hand account, "Hoffman Hall," published in the Newsletter of the Willard Area Historical Society (pgs. 140-144, Sept-Oct 1983).
Note that the Chicago Opera House's place in the life of Willard diminished greatly upon the opening of the new 800-seat Masonic Opera House (the "Temple Theatre") in January 1912. The first manager of the Temple Theatre was S. C. Rumbaugh, who also managed the Chicago Opera House early in 1903 before Fred Henry Layer took over.
I would guess that FHL left his position as manager in December 1911 because all major shows would play at the new Temple Theatre. His small theatre couldn't compete with the new one. The Chicago Opera House management was assumed then by one of the building's owners, Henry Hoffman, who renamed it "Hoffman Opera House." The Chicago Opera House building still stands, but many decades have passed since its last use as a town meeting hall--even the Temple Theatre no longer is used.
I hope this bit of vaudeville archaeology will be of value to researchers of small-town American vaudeville. The listings are alphabetical by artist, alphabetical by title of the play or show, and chronological by event.
I would welcome any additional information or photographs that may be uncovered about the original Chicago Opera House of Willard, Ohio.