Echoes from a storied past


Bell’s Opera House on South High Street in Hillsboro stands as a prominent reminder of the legacy of C.S. Bell, a manufacturer of bells whose successful business ventures in centuries past and subsequent philanthropy transformed turn-of-the-century Hillsboro. It had, however, been bereft of the presence of Bell family members, following the death of the last of C.S. Bell’s surviving children, Cora E. Bell, in 1951.

That all changed on Wednesday, Nov. 8, as Kirsten Falke-Boyd, a classically trained singer who lives in California and whose late husband, Blair Boyd, Jr., was C.S. Bell’s great-grandson, made the trek from California to Ohio to visit the opera house and other locations in Hillsboro.

Falke-Boyd said she was especially interested in seeing the opera house since her family members had been Vaudeville performers who traveled around the country. During its early years of entertaining patrons, the opera house frequently hosted Vaudeville performances in its heyday, before the public’s fascination with movies caused interest in the live performances offered by the opera house to wane in the early decades of the past century. Following the evolution of live performance, including Vaudeville, the opera house unsuccessfully tried converting to a movie house, albeit to no avail. It was eventually shuttered from the public despite its auspicious and long-awaited beginning, having been completed in 1895.

Falke-Boyd marveled at the opportunity to tour the opera house, which stands in wait, its rufescent exterior facade a reminder of Hillsboro’s storied past, but its interior having been absent live performances for nearly a century.

Reminders of its once phenomenal presence as a symbol of the Gilded Age, theatrically inclined society remain. Delicately embossed tin ceiling panels cover the theatre’s vaulted ceiling, while faded wallpaper, sun-bleached through the ravages of time, still displays intricate patterns of fruit and floral designs. Ephemera like playbills and advertisements for coming performances decorate the walls, though their dates have long come and gone.

Falke-Boyd has performed all over the world, studying everywhere from Oberlin to Berlin. Most recently, she had been an integral part with Voicestra, an improvisational singing group that toured the world. She also facilitated Haba Na Haba (“Little by Little” in Swahili) House, a haven of community-based performing arts in Berkeley, California.

While performing with Voicestra, which was primarily based in the San Francisco Bay area, Falke-Boyd said she had the opportunity to travel to performances in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Paris and London. She also appeared with Voicestra in public appearances.

Voicestra, she said, was comprised of an improvisational ensemble in which, “each member had their own unique” vocal technique. They provided back-up vocalizations for performances by Bobby McFerrin, with whom they often went on tour around the world. Falke-Boyd said the group appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson as well as “The Arsenio Hall Show”. Following a group performance on the latter show, Falke-Boyd, who was the group member with classical music training, was pulled aside to sit in the “hot seat” next to Hall to sing with McFerrin alone. Hall, it seemed, had a penchant for Bach, so Falke-Boyd and McFerrin quickly improvised a selection for him and his studio audience. Asked if she was nervous about the impromptu performance, Falke-Boyd paused for a moment and then declared emphatically, “Yes!”

Falke-Boyd said that McFerrin routinely declined performances of his smash hit, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” while singing with Voicestra, because, she said, “Bobby (McFerrin) wanted it to be about the group.”

With a penchant for travel, she said her dream trip had always been Antarctica, a bucket list voyage that was eventually realized. Her latest adventure, though, was Hillsboro, Ohio.

Falke-Boyd said that she had particularly appreciated the assistance of current mayor Justin Harsha with helping her arrange to have a commemorative headstone placed for her late husband at the Hillsboro Cemetery.

The opera house is currently owned by former mayor Drew Hastings, under whose auspices it has remained for many years. It had been previously owned by late businessman Simon Gordon, following the death in 1951 of Bell heir Cora E. Bell, who lived to be 92. Cora E. Bell also owned several of the other iconic local properties of the family, including Bell’s Mansion on Oak Street.

Falke-Boyd had previously visited Hillsboro to attend her husband’s 50th high school reunion at Hillsboro High School in 1994. Following his graduation, Blair Boyd, Jr., attended Harvard University.

Falke-Boyd said that her late husband, who was a Navy veteran of World War II (when bells made by the C.S. Bell Co. of Hillsboro rang on U.S. Navy and Allied Forces ships) spoke of his hometown of Hillsboro often.

“He loved it here,” she said.

Juliane Cartaino, whose book “Casting Fortunes-The Story of the C.S. Bell Company In Hillsboro, Ohio” is available on Amazon, is a stringer for The Times-Gazette.

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