The Whyland Opera House

Center Street looking south, the Whyland Opera House is the large brick building on the left. (Click photo for larger view.)

By Paula Mereness
June 7, 1984
Local History
Mr. Sitterley

(Paula did the report as a local history project in her senior year and she graciously is letting it be put on the site for all to read. It is presented in its entirety with a few modifications. Photos are added and the table of contents left out, but the story is as Paula wrote it. I hope she got an A! Jimmy Christman kept the report and let me see it. Thanks to both of you!)

The Whyland Opera House was erected in 1902 (with actual construction beginning in 1901) near the corner of Center Street and Main Street. It had been the ambition of Mr. Charles Whyland for a number of years. Charles Whyland, a prominent citizen of St. Johnsville, made it possible for the people of St. Johnsville and the surrounding vicinity to enjoy the advantages of attending such a beautiful modern theatre.

The Whyland Opera House was constructed by Mr. William Ziegler. "The bricks used to build the Whyland Opera House came from the local brickyard which was located where the Catholic Church parking lot is today. Most of St. Johnsville's buildings back then were made of bricks from that brickyard."1

"The Whyland Opera House was brick-faced. The two sides and the rear toward the east were covered with imitation brick sheet steel. Only the front facing Center Street had a brick veneer finish on this heavily framed building."2

1 Dorcas Devendorf, St. Johnsville, NY
2 Robert Rowland, Ossining, NY

The cost to build this beautiful Whyland Opera House was $15,000. Mr. Charles Whyland paid $8,000 of the cost himself. The rest was to be paid through bonds. "These were $7,000 worth of four percent bonds that were to be sold to the local people and in the surrounding vicinity. These bonds were in denominations of $100 each. Five of these bonds were to be retired each year until the Whyland Opera House was paid off.1

The Grand Opening of the Whyland Opera House took place on April 10, 1902. The first play to ever be shown was "Uncle terry", a novel by Charles Clark Munn with Mr. James R. Waite with the title role. "The excellent performers played to an appreciative audience of over 900 people from St. Johnsville and the near-by communities."2 people also came from miles and miles away since the Whyland Opera House was the largest opera house between Albany and Syracuse.

1 St. Johnsville Enterprise and News, September 30, 1914.
2 Dorcas Devendorf, St. Johnsville, NY

Since there were no radios or televisions at this time, the Whyland Opera House was St. Johnsville's social center. The Whyland Opera House showed mainly small operas such as "The Scarlet Letter." There were never any Grand Operas shown at the Whyland Opera House. The performers who performed at these operas were from traveling professional groups who traveled around the United States performing at such great opera houses like the Whyland Opera House.

(Minstrel Show at the Whyland Opera House)

The Whyland Opera House also showed many minstrels. The minstrels consisted of only local talent, which there was plenty of in St. Johnsville at that time. Some of the people who performed in the minstrels were mac Eigenbroadt, W. T. Lambert and P. Cantwell. "The music for the minstrels was also local and was played by the St. Johnsville Orchestra with Professor Shea of Amsterdam doing the directing and Professor E. C. Cakin of St. Johnsville assisting."1 The orchestra was composed of eleven musicians such as V. C. Schrader (Violin), Ralph Dye (Flute), W. S. Duesler (Clarinet), and E. C. Calvin (Coronet).

1 James Christman, St. Johnsville, NY

Also adding to St. Johnsville's social life were the many dances that were held at the Whyland Opera House. The townspeople had a chance to get all dressed up in fancy gowns and tuxedos and dance all night. "The younger children, who were not allowed to go to the beautiful dances, could go upstairs to the balcony and watch the Grand March, the highlight of the evening."1

The adults weren't the only ones who got to enjoy the Whyland Opera House, the younger children also had their chance.

Mr. Elmer Fox (Ralph Weir's uncle) ran movies at the Whyland Opera House every Saturday night at 8:00. "There were always three features being shown such as 'The Kidnapping!', 'The Chicken Thieves!' and 'The Bicycle Flight!' The admission was 10 cents for the adults and 5 cents for the younger children. " The films shown were silent films with the words on the bottom of the screen. There were always long waits between the three features

1 Dorcas Devendorf, St. Johnsville, NY
2 Robert Rowland, Ossining, NY

because there was only one spool on the projector. The projector was located in the rear center of the balcony."1

During intermission, two or three people would go through the aisles selling popcorn, peanuts, candy and all the latest magazines. "At the same time, a man would sing a popular song, usually a love song, to the accompaniment of an old square piano. The song usually had a set of slides that went along with it that were shown on the big stage screen."2 By the time he was done singing, the next film was ready to be shown. "Before any of the films were shown, an announcer would ask the ladies to please remove their 'Merry Widow Hats'. These were large hats with huge rims which no one could see through."3

There were also many concerts held at the Whyland Opera House which were given by Englehardt's Peerless Band. Also there was no auditorium big enough in town to hold all the students in the high school, so Commence-

1 Robert Rowland, Ossining, NY
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.

ment exercises were held at the Whyland Opera House. The Whyland Opera House also held many banquets. Everything in St. Johnsville depended ont he beautiful Whyland Opera House.

The inside of the Whyland Opera House was very modern in every respect. It was the only four story building St. Johnsville has ever had.

On the first floor of the Whyland Opera House there were four apartments. The occupants of these tenements were some of the people who worked for Mr. Charles Whyland. "There was a dress maker (who made the costumes), a car driver (who drove when that was needed), a millinery (a lady who made hats) and a shoe cobbler."1

The main entertainment hall was located on the north end of the second floor. This was where the many operas, minstrels and dances were held. "This was a flat, hard-wood floor. The room was painted white, with moldings, wood trim work and railings that were finished in gold."2

1 Dorcas Devendorf, St. Johnsville, NY
2 Robert Rowland, Ossining, NY

The third floor consisted of a beautiful horseshoe balcony. The balcony started on both sides of the stage and ran all around the back in a large curve. this alone could hold several hundred people. The entertainment hall was connected to the balcony on three sides and was arranged to be used as a ballroom or an auditorium.

Also in the Whyland Opera House there were three large flights of stairs. All three flights were near the south end of the building. "One went from Center Street up to the entrance doors. One went from the vestibule up to the second floor where the ticket office was located in the hallway near the entrance doors to the auditorium. The third flight of stairs went from that hallway up to a hallway that led to the balcony."1

"The seats in the Whyland Opera House were tied together in groups of six so they could be quickly moved on or off onto the main floor or stored in spaces under the stage."2 Since the Whyland Opera House was used almost every day and night, a whole force of cus-

1 Robert Rowland, Ossing, NY
2 Ibid.

todians were needed to run the place in order to move the furniture.

Above all this, was the fourth floor. This floor was used solely for the purpose of raising and lowering the scenery and the drop-curtains. This floor was mainly located at the north end, above the stage. All of these beautiful features were destroyed on an early Friday morning.

"The burning of the Whyland Opera House was one of the worse fires that ever occurred in the village of St. Johnsville."1 The fire totally destroyed the beautiful and modern Whyland Opera House.

Fire at the Whyland Opera House, photo taken by Jimmy Christman's mother, who had an apartment with a view of the fire.

The fire was discovered at 5:00 A.M. on September 25, 1914 by Mr. William Zoller, the occupant of the south apartment. Mr. Zoller smelled smoke and left his room just as the blaze broke through the ceiling into his room. After yelling to arouse the other occupants, Mr. Zoller ran to the corner of Main Street and Bridge Street to turn in the fire on the alarm box.

By the time the St. Johnsville Fire Department

1 St. Johnsville Enterprise and News, September 30, 1914.

arrived, the Whyland Opera House was a mass of flames and it looked like the whole business district of st. Johnsville was doomed. Seeing the damage it might do, Fire Chief Countryman called the Fort Plain Fire Department for assistance.

"The firemen used hose-carts and a hook and ladder truck since there were no pumpers at that time."1

Although the fire was quite large, the surrounding buildings were eventually saved. To the north of the Whyland Opera House there was an engine house which was saved by a fire wall. To the east there were a few wooden barns and sheds. "The blaze from the Whyland Opera House was so high, due to the fourth floor, that it raged over the top of these structures."2

To the south of the Whyland Opera House there was a wood storehouse that was attached to Handy Drug-store. This structure was saved due to the ten foot driveway that separated it from the Whyland Opera House.

1 Robert Rowland, Ossining, NY.
2 St. Johnsville Enterprise and News, September 30, 1914.

The occupants of the other three apartments in the Whyland Opera House were Delos Smith, William Shannon and Lena Spencer, who also shared her apartment with Lena Heney. All the occupants got out safely and were able to remove a good deal of their belongings, but all sustained losses.

The floor dividing the Whyland Opera House and the apartments contained a sheet of asbestos paper which prevented the fire from eating through a considerable extent of the apartments. The main damage in the apartments was due to water damage.

The origin of the fire was never known. One theory is that it started near the box office of the Whyland Opera House. The cause may have been due to faulty wiring. THis is indicated by the place it broke through on Mr. William Zoller's apartment. The second theory concerns a cigarette stub. Some young people of St. Johnsville were to have a dance at the Whyland Opera House on Friday night. They had been in the Whyland Opera House decorating on Thursday night. It is suspected that one of them had dropped their cigarette stub, which may have started the fire.

"The damage was estimated to be anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000 in which there was insurance only up to $11,000."1 Although the Whyland Opera House always played to a full house, it was not a financial success. This was mainly because the Whyland Opera House was too grand to have been built in such a tiny village as St. Johnsville. The Whyland Opera House, which at the time it burned was run by Mr. Charles Whyland's estate who had passed away years earlier, was to be leased to an Albany theatrical man to be used as a movie house on October 1, 1914.

The Whyland Opera House was never rebuilt after it burned. After the fire, it was left fenced off until 1920 when it was cleaned up and leveled off.

The Whyland Opera House added much pizzazz to the lifestyle of the people of St. johnsville. The entertainment and the memories shared will always be remembered by those who were there to experience them.

1 St. Johnsville Enterprise and News, September 30, 1914.

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