ONE OF DALLAS’S earliest historical markers was placed in 1936 at the location of the city’s first building devoted exclusively to the theater— the original Dallas Opera House that stood for eighteen years after its erection in 1883 on the southwest corner of Commerce and Austin. The opera house was completely destroyed in the middle of the night of April 25, 1901. Although the exact cause was never determined, popular legend has it that it was the first costly fire in Dallas to be set off by a careless cigarette smoker. The metal marker was placed on the Austin Street side of the present building by the Dallas Historical Society. It was the gift of the late Karl Hoblitzelle, Dallas and Texas theatrical magnate. The marker singles out only three of the great theatrical figures who performed in the old Opera House, listing the names of England’s Lily Langtry, America’s Edwin Booth, and France’s Sarah Bernhardt.
The great Bernhardt’s first appearance in Dallas was in 1892 when she played in Sardou’s La Tosca ( a few years before the Italian cornposer Puccini converted it into a grand opera). A photograph of Bernhardt in her private railroad car while in Dallas for her second appearance here, in 1903, is one of the illustrations in Ted Dealey’s book, Diaper Days of Dallas. Cornelia Otis Skinner, in her current bestselling biogaphy of Bernhardt, drew extensively upon the theater arts library given to the University of Texas by Karl Hoblitzelle for other photographs of the French star. ( Miss Skinner’s noted actor-father, Otis Skinner, played in Dallas as late as 1914 in a performance of his memorable stage vehicle Kismet.)
The Dallas Opera House of 1883 cost $43,000, seated 1,200 people in its parterre and galleries, and was built and owned by a private syndicate of twenty-two Dallas business and civic leaders. They were headed by Alfred Davis, member of the pioneer wholesale grocery firm of Schneider 8z Davis. Among the early managers was Col. J. T. Trezevant, who during a term of one year brought the world-renowned actress Clara Morris for two performances in November, 1884, of Bulwer-Lytton’s tearful The Lady of Lyons. Miss Morris was paid $1,000 a night for her Dallas appearance—a record-breaking sum at the time. Bulwer-Lytton’s same heart-breaking tragedy was one of the great favorites of Dallas and other American communities during the latter half of the nineteenth century. It was performed in 1876 in the Field Opera House and again the following year when the “the rising young tragedienne” Mary Anderson played it.
Dallas’s second playhouse—another second-story affair—opened in the late 1870s, succeeding Field’s as the main theater in the city. It was built in 1879 by L. Craddock on the northwest corner of Main and Austin.
Among the male stars seen in the Field, Craddock, and Dallas opera houses were such luminaries as Frederick Warde, Edwin Booth, Lawrence Barrett, and Maurice Barrymore. The female contingent numbered, among others, Emma Abbott, who, on New Year’s Eve, 1885, brought her musical troupe to give what may have been Dallas’s first taste of music drama—a performance of Il Trovatore. One of the most famous appearances was that of Edwin Booth as Hamlet on February 4, 1887. Booth played to a sell-out audience, who had paid the staggering price of $15 a seat.
The Dallas News’s reviewer joined the rest of the world in acclaiming Sarah Bernhardt when she played La Tosca in Dallas. He was not as kind to Lily Langtry when she appeared in the city about the same time. “As an actress,” said the newspaperman, “Mrs. Langtry does not rank very high. Her personal charm seems to be the secret of her popularity. She certainly has a magnificent physique of the tall, queenly type, and an exceedingly attractive face. Mrs. Langtry’s bust is a model. Her support, like the play, is light.”
After Dallas’s first opera house burned in April, 1901, the business community again pitched in, this time to replace the lost structure. This second Dallas Opera House devoted exclusively to the theater was opened November 29, 1901, with a performance of Stuart Robson in The Henrietta. It was an imposing building on the northeast corner of Main and St. Paul, its only drawback being its relative distance from the heart of the downtown business district. Decorated in gold, ivory, and plush, the new auditorium had a seating capacity of 1,700. It was managed by George Anzy, who had also served in the same capacity in the earlier opera house. Both structures were leased in turn to the Greenwall theatrical interests of New Orleans, Galveston, and Houston. In this last opera house, long since demolished with TitcheGoettinger’s downtown store now occupying the site—Dallas audiences enjoyed the last generation of stage stars before the advent of the movies largely killed the theatrical “road” in a transformation of America’s amusement world.