Thursday, September 30, 2010

Abbeville Opera House

100 Court Square
Abbeville, South Carolina

Ruth, it's these fellows are fooling you! It's they who keep your head set on the wages of sin, and all that rubbish. What have we got to do with suffering and sacrifice? That may be the law for some, and I've tried hard to see it as outlaw, and I thought I had succeeded. But I haven't! Our law is joy, and selfishness; the curve of your shoulder and the light on your hair as you sit there says that as plain as preaching.
---William Vaughn Moody, The Great Divide, 1906, the first play to open the Abbeville Opera House.

I’ve discovered, with much joy, that the state of South Carolina, like Virginia, has placed all of its National Register nomination forms online! Therefore, research for this state has been made much easier. Since I haven’t written much yet on South Carolina, I’ve been focusing on it this week.

As you may notice in my brief bio at the right of this text, I’m an actor first. I’ve been performing onstage since the ripe old age of four; starting as a singer and in musicals and working my way up to earning a theatre degree from Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia. Following college, I have continued to play various roles both on and off stage including helping to found a Shakespeare company and editing and co-writing a history of the Springer Opera House in Columbus, as well. The Springer is haunted, of course, and I do plan on writing about it in the future. So, theatres, especially haunted theatres, combine two of the great passions in my life. What could be better?

Abbeville Opera House, 2004. This public domain image is by
K. Armstrong of National Scenic Byways Online.

Theatre has been a part of American culture from quite early on. Native Americans included theatre and dance as a part of their rituals. Many of the earliest European settlers shunned such cultural extravagances as being sinful—“they who keep your head set on the wages of sin”-- but theatre took hold in the mid-18th century and did not let go. Travelling companies formed and trooped through the frontier bringing Shakespeare with them to people starved for any entertainment. Towards the end of the 19th century, theatres were springing up in any city that wished to call itself such. These theatres were the stopping places for thousands of performers travelling “the Road.”

Legend has it that Abbeville, South Carolina was just a nightly stopping place for major companies on the Road. When the citizens of Abbeville realized the benefits of having these companies perform in town, they built a theatre to accommodate performances. On an early evening in October of 1908 (sources differ as to the exact date), the opera house opened with a performance of the melodramatic The Great Divide. The local paper, The Abbeville Medium, raved that “the show was far above the average show that hails this way.” Later that month, Thomas F. Dixon’s controversial play, The Clansman, appeared. The play caused riots and government officials in some towns had prevented performances due to its “sensitive” subject matter: the Ku Klux Klan, but the Medium described the play as being in no “sense offensive, as we thought it would be.” Another popular show of the era that played the Abbeville Opera House was one of the stage adaptations of Lew Wallace’s classic, Ben Hur. The story of a wealthy Jewish prince whose life is turned upside down by a minor accident, Ben Hur ends with the title character finding redemption after encountering Christ. Broadway producers turned the show into a family spectacle that included an actual chariot race with live horses onstage running on a treadmill. The show was a nationwide hit.

The Opera House also hosted popular minstrel shows, vaudeville (quickly becoming the most popular form of entertainment) and even the Ziegfeld Follies all straight from the boards of the Great White Way in distant New York City. These performances were gala events with the citizens turning out in their best finery. The Southern Railroad would even run special trains to and from the surrounding towns to see names like the great female comedienne, Fannie Brice or the Great Jimmy Durante. Certainly, with the lack of theatre in small towns now, it’s hard to imagine even a small town seeing many of the greatest performers of the day in a live performance.

Starting just two years after it opened, the Abbeville Opera House’s lights were dimmed to the flicker of the movie projector. For nearly the next two decade, film would slowly begin to edge out live performances. According to the Opera House website, nearly 3,250 films played in the Opera House between 1914 and 1930. By 1930, the Road was dying and film had begun to dominate American entertainment. The grande dames that were originally built to accommodate live theatre performances were slowly closed and demolished towards the middle of the 20th century. At this time, as the Abbeville Opera House started to take its final curtain call, George Settles formed a group, Abbeville Community Theater (the group performing in the Opera House is now the Opera House Players, though I’m not sure what relation they have to Settles’ group) to preserve live theatre in the area. Plans were made to restore the grand lady and fifty years after the house had opened so dramatically, the restored theatre was reopened with a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.

The theatre world is rife with superstition and nearly every theatre is known to harbor a ghost and the Abbeville Opera House is no exception. Rumors of ghosts spread quite early. Local Larry Pursley recalls in his book, Abbeville, SC: A Backward Glance, that he was told as a child “a man had been hanged out of the small window near the top of the back of the Opera House.” He states that with his knowledge of local history now, he knows the story is ludicrous and completely untrue. But, other stories, however, have a ring of truth.

Theatre company members have had many experiences in this 102 year old theatre. Most of the experiences seem to center on the second balcony. This balcony, which in some theaters might be referred to as “the nose-bleed section,”was originally intended for non-white patrons during the era of segregation. Often these seats were the worst and the most uncomfortable and the entrance to this balcony was accessed through a different entrance so the two groups of patrons wouldn’t mix. The balcony, nowadays, is reserved for the “techies” or theatre technicians who run lights and sound and a ghost or two.

When the theatre was restored the second balcony was cleared except for a single chair. This single chair, known as the “ghost chair,” is untouched. Jerry Solomon, a set builder, remarked in a 2005 article in the Columbia, South Carolina paper, The State, that would not move or even touch the chair for fear that something would go wrong during the show. “The curtain won’t go down; lights will go out.” This sentiment has been expressed by many associated with the theatre. Theatre people, especially actors who are bound by routine during a show, are especially superstitious, but that doesn’t explain the strange reports coming out of the theatre.

One actor glancing up the second balcony during a show saw a woman standing there staring down at the stage. Cheralyn Lambeth, author of Haunted Theaters of the Carolinas, states an actor saw a woman in period dress applauding in the same balcony during the curtain call of a show. Other actors report the sound a lone applause coming from the same balcony while actors and techies have described odd sounds coming from the balcony and the catwalks above the stage during shows.

Two legends exist to explain this phenomena. One speaks of an actress with a touring company who died while or shortly after performing in the Opera House possibly during the 1920s. The other mentions an African-American man who fell in love with a white actress and was murdered in the balcony by a racist mob when the relationship was discovered. Whatever the cause, there is something going on in the theater.

Cheri Standridge, director of the Greater Abbeville Chamber of Commerce, mentions that she accompanied a psychic on a walk of the Opera House. The woman encountered a number of spirits including a family sitting in one of the boxes and a man in a military uniform. One Georgia ghost-hunting team has investigated the Opera House at least four times, but has not published its results. Of course the number of times says something: if they hadn’t found anything, they would not have investigated it numerous times.

The Opera House continues to stage shows that are loudly applauded by the living and even some of the dead.

Sources
Abbeville Opera House. History. Accessed 28 September 2010.
Bordsen, John. “A Boo’s Who of Ghosts.” The State. 30 October 2005.
Fant, Mrs. James. National Register of Historic Places Nomination form
    for the Abbeville Opera House. Entered in the National Register
     1 July 1970.
Jones, Jennifer. “Abbeville Opera House Known for ‘ghost chair.’”
     Anderson (SC) Independent-Mail. 23 October 2005.
Kyle, F. Clason. Lewis Powell, IV, editor. In Order of Appearance:
     135 Years on America’s Most Celebrated Stage. Columbus, GA:
     Communicorp, 2006.
Lambeth, Cheralyn. Haunted Theaters of the Carolinas. Atglen, PA:
     Schiffer, 2009.
Pursely, Larry. Abbeville, SC: A Backward Glance. Alpharetta, GA:
     WH Wolfe and Associates, 1993.
Ware, Lowery. Old Abbeville: Scenes of the Past of a Town Where Old
     Time Things Are Not Forgotten. Columbia, SC: SCMAR, 1992.

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