It has only been open to the public a handful of times since the very first celebration in 1976 of what evolved into the Festival of the Bells. But Hillsboro Mayor Drew Hastings opened the doors over the weekend to one of the gems of the city, Bell’s Opera House.
Tours began Saturday that were guided by local historian Max Petzhold and sometimes the mayor himself, and unlike previous times the doors were opened, Saturdays’ excursions into the 124-year-old building were largely self-guided, with people allowed to freely explore every nook and cranny.
A line began forming before the doors were opened starting at 8 a.m. Saturday, at one point swelling to more than 50 as visitors waited patiently to venture inside and hear, see and touch some of Hillsboro’s history.
According to the Highland County Historical Society’s “Highland County, Ohio: A Pictorial History,” which was published in 2004, construction on the building began in March 1895 through the generosity of Charles S. Bell, the founder of Bell’s Foundry.
Construction was completed in only seven months at a cost of $40,000 — $1.5 million in today’s dollars — and it was considered to be one of the finest of its type of construction in the entire state, employing electric lighting and heated with the latest design in steam heat.
The grand opening was held on Nov. 20, 1895, and with such a strong demand for seats for the opening performance — seating capacity was nearly 1,000 — the opening was held over two nights.
Theatre goers were treated to a performance of “Friends,” a comedy-drama by Edwin Milton Royle, on the opening night, and the following night was a four-act romantic drama entitled “Mexico.”
General admission and gallery seating was 50 cents, reserved and orchestra seats were 75 cents, as were the dress circle and balcony seats, and a double box seat for a party of six was $6.
The historical society book stated that silent movies arrived at Bell’s Opera House in 1901 with the showing of “The Great Train Robbery.”
“Talkies” were all the rage in the early 20th century, and by 1923 sound equipment was installed, with the opera house being renamed Bell’s Theatre.
Petzhold said that contrary to popular belief, Buffalo Bill never appeared at Bell’s Opera House, but instead performed twice at the local fairgrounds and had a big parade in the center of town.
In the ensuing years, the building was used by local performers and traveling theatrical groups, along with bands and graduation exercises for local high schools until the early years of World War II, when in 1942 the changing entertainment tastes of the country caused the elegantopera house to close permanently, giving way to modern movie houses like the Colony Theatre.
Petzold said that most of the seats in the opera house with their metal construction were sold as scrap to help with the war effort while some found their way into the Marshall school, were used in other Chakerer’s theatres when they began leasing the opera house in 1939, or into the hands of private collectors.
The chain of ownership gained another link in 1952, when Si and Lenora Gordon bought the opera house from the estate of Cora Bell, the daughter of C.S. Bell, and opened it periodically under the auspices of the Hillsboro Junior Mother’s Club.
The first tour was for the Ohio sesquicentennial in 1957, and the doors would be opened again until 15 years later on June 14, 1972, for the Hillsboro Retail Merchants’ “Old Fashioned Day.”
Three years later people were allowed in for a Yankee Doodle Jubilee Celebration on July 4, 1975, the following Fourth of July during the nation’s bibentennial, again in 1982 for Hillsboro’s 175th celebration and from 1985 through 1988 for the newly created Festival of the Bells.
It was opened a final time under the Gordon’s ownership on July 15-16, 1995 for the opera house’ 100th anniversary.
When Hastings returned to his mid-western roots in 2006, he bought Bell’s Opera House in December of that year and embarked on renovations to preserve the historic structure a few years later, while at the same time running for the office of mayor of Hillsboro.
Like the old opera house, he said he has weathered many storms in his last eight years as its owner and as mayor of Hillsboro.
Hastings said that when he leaves office later this year, he has an eye to what he’d like to see the future hold for the former historical showplace, likening it to what has been done to the Murphy Theatre in Wilmington.
“That kind of thing could be done,” he said. “Shane Wilkin, our state representative, managed to get a million dollars for the Murphy a couple of years ago, and there’s no reason why this kind of theatre here in Hillsboro can’t get the same attention.”
Hastings said he plans to put the opera house up for sale later this year when he leaves office as mayor, adding that he hoped a non-profit entity would buy the property, seek grant funding and take the renovation process to the next level.
“It really needs to get into the hands of an energetic local non-profit who could easily get this restored,” he said. “There are plenty of funds out there to do this, and at that point, I could help a non-profit with the connections I’ve made over the years and give some attention to it.”
Words from the historical society’s 2004 book still ring true some 15 years after it was published in describing the current state of the opera house, where traces of the theatre’s majestic style still remain in the pressed tin ceiling and sloping floor that glides toward the stage.
Then as now, a work of art in the form of a curtain still hangs above the stage while on both sides of it, private box seats and a circular balcony arch above the floor.
Petzhold said the box seat area on the audience’s right was designed for Bell himself, and was purposely built bigger to accommodate his stature.
“You had some very famous acts of the day that played here,” he said. “George the magician was one, you had stock companies that came through all the time and some of those acts came over and over again.”
Hastings said his preservation efforts in 2010-11 paid off so that the next owner could take the historic landmark to the next level, remarking that the eventual restoration of Bell’s Opera House would “fundamentally change Hillsboro.”
Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571.