A surprise package that arrived in the mail a few days ago from a relative of the former owner of Bell’s Opera House answered several questions and filled in many blanks about the performances and events that local residents enjoyed at the historic theater nearly 100 years ago.
Hillsboro Mayor Drew Hastings, the current owner of the opera house, said he was pleasantly surprised to receive a large box of memorabilia, scrapbooks and clippings from Jeffrey Gordon, the nephew of former opera house owner Si Gordon.
“I was thrilled to get it,” said Hastings. “It fills in so many pieces as to what was actually at the opera house in its heyday.”
Most people think of opera houses hosting plays, musicals and, yes, operas. But Hastings said he had always heard that boxing was a popular attraction at the theater, and the clippings prove that belief to be true. Numerous advertisements promoting upcoming boxing matches at the opera house were included among the artifacts. The bouts featured regional and local boxers.
Hastings said he was amazed at how booked the theater was on a regular basis. There was seldom an evening when something wasn’t happening at the opera house, based on the advertisements and clippings.
The clippings generally cover the early 1920s, and the often risqué vaudeville and traveling chorus reviews reflect a looser standard than many might know existed at the time. Countless ads promote “all girl reviews,” with titles such as, “The Show Girl,” “His Night Out,” “Naughty Baby,” “Oh Girlie, Girlie” and others, promising “bewitching beauties” and “25 PEOPLE, Mostly Girls.”
Many shows were booked for three or four consecutive nights. Numerous clippings from the Press Gazette and News Herald make reference to longtime opera house manager Charles Langley commenting on the merits of various productions and exhibits. Sometimes, the facility was referred to as “Bell’s Theatre” rather that Bell’s Opera House.
Jeffrey Gordon, who lives in Florida, included a note to Hastings dated Oct. 16, saying he hoped Hastings would find the materials interesting, and adding that he has “fond memories of our many visits to Hillsboro to see my aunt and uncle and my cousins dating back to the 1940s.”
According to information compiled by Hillsboro historian Jean Wallis and featured in a 1995 book on Highland County’s past, Bell’s Opera House became a reality thanks to the benevolence of its namesake, Hillsboro businessman C.S. Bell.
When it came to an opera house, “For many years, Bell had contemplated the erection of such a building; however, he was confronted with the fact that to erect such a building for the needs of the town would mean the outlay of a large sum of money, from which he could not hope to realize a profit,” according to Wallis.
So, Bell enlisted the help of the people of Hillsboro, who bought subscriptions that allowed the purchasing of the lots where the ornate theater was built at a cost of $40,000. Bell’s Opera House opened its doors on Nov. 20, 1895.
As noted in a 2013 profile in Salt magazine, “Eventually, Hillsboro fell off the show business touring circuit. For many years, the opera house was used as a movie house – one of at least three in Hillsboro at the time – and was known as New Bell’s Theatre. But after the then-luxurious Colony Theatre opened in 1938, competing movie houses in Hillsboro eventually faded away over the course of the next decade or so.”
Bell’s Opera House was purchased in 1952 by Si and Lenora Gordon, who conducted occasional tours of the facility and held a July 1995 celebration commemorating the facility’s 100th anniversary. The theater remained in the Gordon family until Hastings purchased it in 2007.
Hastings completely renovated the first floor commercial storefronts where various businesses now operate, and he sought and won a $250,000 state grant that allowed him to weatherize and repair damage to the opera house, as well as install gutters and some windows, at least preventing further erosion. But returning the opera house to its former glory is a project he still hopes to complete.
The opera house could benefit from the designation of downtown Hillsboro as a Downtown Redevelopment District, a new economic development tool approved last year by the Ohio legislature. City council is considering the issue. Hastings would likely have to divest his interests in the facility because he is now the mayor, but he said he’s happy to do so if the restoration could proceed.
“I never bought the opera house thinking I would make money on it,” said Hastings. “I was approached multiple times asking if I would consider buying it, and I kept saying, ‘Why do I need an opera house?’ They were asking a price I couldn’t afford. Finally, they asked me to make an offer. I did, and to my surprise they accepted it. That’s how I ended up with it.”
Hastings said the contents of the package he received from Jeffrey Gordon will be organized and added to memorabilia available for the public to inspect during the occasional tours he conducts at the opera house.
“This was a big piece of Hillsboro history, and I hope we can find a way to preserve it for several generations to come,” said Hastings.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.