PIQUA — This week, the Piqua Public Library’s monthly Portal’s to Piqua Past event covered Piqua’s history with theaters, beginning in the 1800s.
“Piqua had its share of theaters,” Director Jim Oda of the Piqua Public Library said, adding he defined theaters as having a stage with some type of lighting.
The first theater opened in Piqua in 1820 and was called Union Hall. It was located on the second floor a building at the southwest corner of Main and Ash streets. It had a small stage with oil lanterns.
“It was not very big,” Oda said. He said Union Hall had theatrical productions in the form of simplified Shakespearean plays put on by traveling groups.
In 1850, Border Hall was the next theater built in Piqua. It was a three-story brick structure located at the southeast corner of Main and Greene streets, across from where Readmore’s Hallmark is currently located. It could fit approximately 150 people. This theater featured a sloping floor, gas lights, and some space for a fly system. This theater also hosted traveling groups.
“Fall and spring were the big times for the traveling shows,” Oda said. He said they also hosted traveling temperance talkers, who opposed the consumption of alcohol, as well as other Shakespearean productions. Oda noted, during this time period, women were allowed to attend Shakespearean plays versus other plays, and he also added churches at this time did not necessarily object to Shakespeare.
In 1872, Conover’s Opera House opened. It had permanent seating, Oda said, in the four-story brick structure. It also had private boxes. The theater was located on the top two floors. The bottom floors were occupied by office space and businesses.
Oda said this theater had a trap door on its stage, had an orchestra pit, and used gas lights. Oda noted the use of gas lights was dangerous, causing various things like costumes and stage scenery to catch fire.
“These theaters had fires on a regular basis,” Oda said.
Oda said Conover’s Opera House would charge approximately 50 cents a show, noting a high-skilled factory worker at this time would make between $8-10 a week.
“They did do light opera, also serious dramas,” Oda said about the performances, saying the theater also drew in well-known actors during this time period.
The theater later burned down in 1892.
“Enough damage was done that they wouldn’t rebuild it,” Oda said.
In 1890, the Music Hall opened at the southeast corner of Ash and Wayne streets, in the former Z’s and Elks building. The Music Hall took over what had once been a Presbyterian Church. They covered the front of the business with a decorative cast iron. There was wood between the stone building and cast iron facade. Even though they used electric lights, the Music Hall was gutted by a fire in 1903, Oda said.
In February 1903, May’s Opera House was built in Piqua on the 200 block of North Wayne Street.
“It was really quite a big deal,” Oda said. The theater sat 1,100 people, had two balconies, box seating, a 40-piece orchestra, standard sets, and a “huge stage.” Oda said they hosted a circus at one point, which included an elephant.
May’s Opera House hosted traveling shows that came by the railroads, as well as offered early Vaudeville shows starting in 1906. The workers at the theater also formed a union, called Theatrical Mechanics, local number 61.
The theater was also host to political rallies, including visits from Warren G. Harding, the 29th president of the United States, and William Jennings Bryan, a Democratic politician from Nebraska who ran for president three times, including in the 1896, 1900, and 1908 elections.
They also had popular entertainers, like Harry Houdini, the illusionist and stunt performer, and John Philip Sousa, the composer and conductor.
In 1932, May’s Opera House became the Schines Miami Theatre. It later closed in 1953 and was torn down in 1958.
Other theaters in Piqua included the Bijou Theatre, which opened in May 1906 on Ash Street. It had a tunnel and “air conditioning” in the form of ice and fans. Oda said the Bijou Theatre had small productions, boxing shows, cowboy acts, and more.
“He also had exotic dancers,” Oda said, noting they were “exotic” because “they had bare feet.”
In 1919, the Bijou Theatre moved to showing movies and later closed in 1934.
Oda explained the early movie houses were located in storefronts. Theaters in Piqua that were strictly for showing motion pictures included The Star in July 1906 on the 200 block of North Main Street; the Dream Theater, which was open in the early 1900s where Barclay’s is currently located on Main Street; Zigs, which opened in 1912 where 311 Drafthouse is currently located; the Strand Theatre, which was open between 1915-1919; the Ohio Theatre, which opened in 1928 where Hallmark is currently located and later between Schines Piqua; and the Twin Cinema, which was the first theater to show two movies at once. There was also the 36 Drive-In, and then Cinemark opened in the Miami Valley Centre Mall in 1988.
The Portals to Piqua’s Past program is offered the second Wednesday of each month from 7-8 p.m. in the Louis Room of the Piqua Public Library, located at 116 West High Street in Piqua. For more information, visit www.piqualibrary.org.
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