Opera House built in 1868 on the historic square in Pulaski, Tennessee
By Kimesia Chiles Isbell
“Pulaski, Tennessee is to have one of the largest and most magnificent halls this side of Cincinnati,” announced The Pulaski Citizen on June 26, 1868. The opening of the opera house on December 25 of that same year began an era in Giles County of unprecedented cultural and community growth.
Pulaski, like many towns with a population under 10,000, has a square that is built around a central courthouse. In early 1868, the whole east side of this square was destroyed by fire. Many plans were put forth for rebuilding, but in June of 1868, Mr. Angenol Cox announced plans for a magnificent hall to be constructed on the east side of the square replacing a large portion of the burned area. This was the first building erected after the fire. Mr. Cox contracted a Nashville architect, M. D. LeMoine, to render plans for his proposed building. The first floor was to house two merchants with the magnificent hall to be located in the second story. For maps of Pulaski's square from the first 40 years of the theater, click here.
The Pulaski Citizen printed the following description of the proposed building.
“The next two houses are of the same dimensions 80" long by 21" wide with a vault and bathroom in each and large airy cellar underneath, while two stairways 7' 3" wide will lead to the magnificent hall in the second story. We have seen a drawing representing the interior of the hall, and we feel no hesitancy in saying that in point of accessibility and easy exit from, in point of convenience of arrangement, elegance of finish, capacity, ventilation and style of architecture, it will have no superior this side of Cincinnati. The ceiling will be 34' high, arched and frescoed in the most modern style, while each end of the building will contain six large windows, and on each end of the roof, three large dormer windows and in the center of the roof a ventilator. The hall will be 41' wide by 80' in the clear, 20' of which will be occupied by a model stage and private boxes. The floor at the rear will be elevated 4' to a level with the stage and supplied with settees after the style of those in the Masonic Hall in Nashville. Capable of seating 500 people exclusive of galleries, the whole building will be fireproof, lit by gas and supplied with water from a large cistern in the rear. Mr. Cox has already had applications from first class theatre managers for a five-year lease on the hall but has not made any disposition of it.”
The idea for Mr. Cox’s proposed hall came about because of an article published in The Pulaski Citizen in 1867 entitled "Amusement Wanted."
The first amusement performed in the hall was on Dec. 25, 1868, at which time a local group, the Ben Johnson Club, with a choice selection of players and a splendid cast of characters, dedicated the new magnificent building. Giles citizens in attendance commented “this is perhaps the finest and most tastily arranged theatre in the South as the enterprising proprietor has lavished money and time in its structure and has adorned it with all the beauties and improvements of the age.”
In April 1869, Mr. Cox announced the name for his new hall. It was to be called Antoinette Hall after his wife. The Citizen declared, “We admire the hall as well as the enterprise and liberal public spirit which promoted its proprietor to build it but cannot say the name is appropriate.”
The fitness of the name in no way hindered the better theatre companies and entertainers from coming to perform in Antoinette Hall for the citizens of Giles County. The type of entertainment seen at the opera house was widely varied. For more about these performances and performers, click here. Performances were given by John Happy, a humorist; The Tyrolian Concert Troupe; Professor Fahn, lecturer; Rosenaw & Bros., a widely acclaimed minstrel show of the day; and singer Kate Gilbert and company. The opera house became the focal point of the community affairs and activities. As well as many fine outside performers, Pulaski found it had many talented individuals who contributed to the continuing popularity of the opera house even though Mr. Cox, in a dispute with local authorities over licensing, closed the opera house for a period of five months during 1870. Overwhelming local enthusiasm prompted him to pay the outrageous license fee and reopen the hall. Increased interest in the Arts led to more local involvement in the hall’s activities. These activities included performances by local talent to raise money for the War Orphan Home. The Pulaski Amateur Club also performed weekly. The performances at the hall promoted cultural growth which, in turn, stimulated demand for good traveling theatrical companies, lecturers and individual performers.
Of local regional interest in 1871, was the Giles County Fruit Growers Society’s first Exposition was held at the hall. The Citizen described the scene in detail.
"The interior of the hall, having undergone the finishing touches, presents an appearance so beautiful that one is apt to imagine himself in the midst of a fairy scene. There were beautiful paintings on the walls and balconies, the set was a forest scene with deer, there was a brilliant display of all the nations’ flags, and the center attraction was a handsome fountain whose generous mouth will never grow weary of gushing forth cool and sparkling waters.”
The successful Exposition of Fruit Growers was attributed to Antoinette Hall's owner, Angenol Cox, who traveled north to research the fruit yielding varieties to find the best suited to the local climate and soil for best productivity. Fruit growing proved to be very prosperous for Giles County. Mr. Cox's own vineyard's yield was 3,000 gallons of wine, with his best on display at the Exposition. Fruit growers from North Alabama and Middle Tennessee as far north as Nashville came to Antoinette Hall to participate in the Exposition.
1871 proved to be a very prosperous year for local and outside interests in Pulaski and Antoinette Hall. After the Exposition, Pulaski’s Dramatic Club performed weekly closing the year on December 25 with a splendid performance and minstrel combination.
It was during the early 1870s that Cox left Pulaski and relocated to the mid-West. For more about his life after Pulaski, click here.
1872 was as successful a year for Antoinette Hall as the preceding years. The building was not under management of a local man, Mr. Crane, who took pride in getting the best outside speakers and theatrical amusements available to small towns. The last event of the year on December 25th was a Grand Ball Masque for Pulaski society and their out-of-town guests.
During the middle 1870s the great lecturers of that time grew in popularity. The crowds increased in number as the many lecturers became familiar to the townspeople. The outstanding acoustics made Antoinette Hall an exceptional one in which to speak. For more on the acoustics, click here.
Due to poor management in the latter years of the '70s and early years of the '80s, interest in the hall declined. The outside performances during this time were few and far between causing local interest to wane.
Early in 1884, a local enterprising young businessman, B.C. Steel, then a proprietor of the St. Giles Hotel, leased Antoinette Hall renaming it the Opera House and refitting it in the elegant style of the day. The Pulaski Citizen speculated that when completed, "it will be a worthy companion in artistic style to other halls in the South."
Mr. Steel placed bulletins on the square advertising the new Pulaski Opera House. He contracted with numerous good companies to play in Giles County that next season. Mr. Steel in his refitting of the opera house purchased a fine piano and new scenery. He contracted a firm in Chicago to paint a new drop curtain. The Pulaski Citizen explained the symbolism in the curtain's painting, stating, “The pictorial scene on the sail of the curtain is of the Battle of Manila. The number on the sail of the nearest fishing boat is 219. This number foretold Grover Cleveland’s electoral votes in the election of 1886. The drop curtain was painted at Chicago the week of the electoral convention.”
Mr. Steel, in his quest to refit the Opera House in the latest style had trouble acquiring the new opera chairs. In order to purchase new seats, Mr. Steel held a Calico Ball at the St. Giles Hotel in September 1884, with all proceeds going toward acquisition of the opera chairs. To see one of the chairs, click here.
To encourage local interest and participation in the Opera House, “Mr. Steel has generously placed the hall at the service of our people in Giles County, rent free, for public occasions.”
In the fall of 1884, the finishing touches on the opera house were almost complete. Workmen were busy installing the new opera chairs, curtains and scenery, all in readiness for Mr. Steel’s fine list of performers for the new season.
In spite of Mr. Steel’s efforts to rekindle local interest, he was poorly supported. The local paper on Dec. 25, 1884, made note of the lack in support stating, “Antoinette Hall went down in the last few years and so did the shows, but now that B. C. Steel has taken over, we have first class shows, but he has been poorly repaid. It seems almost impossible to convince the people here that the shows are of a class superior to what had been given. If we would keep our town on the best list and not let it retrogress again among the snide, we must patronize Mr. Steel more liberally.”
After this disappointing year, Mr. Steel evidently chose not to re-lease the hall; and on April 23, 1885, about a year later, it was leased it to T. H. May for the following season. From that time on, the opera house slowly declined in popularity. The manager was not able to attract better performers; and when he did, they were not received by large crowds. In the Nov. 15, 1888 issue of the Pulaski Citizen, there came a cry from some interested citizens. “When shall we have good dramatic entertainment in Pulaski? The walls of our beautiful, commodious opera house do not echo a reply.” On Nov. 22, 1888, another notice read “Remember the date of the grand operatic entertainment to be given at the opera house. The date will be published as soon as the proprietor licenses the hall and opens it for such purposes.”
During the following years with no manager, the opera house is opened for local plays, benefits and Martin College commencement exercises only. This continues until 1891 at which time performances by outside theatre companies came to the Opera House but received little attention from the local citizens. The Pulaski newspaper observed, “If Pulaski does not want good theatre companies to pass us the go by, let us come out in force for the next three nights for the Kate Mortimer Company.” All pleas were to no avail.
The desire for operatic entertainment is now answered in 1893 with the contracting of a new manager, A. M. Notgrass. Mr. Notgrass has arranged for Lillian Lewis to appear Feb. 2, 1893, in Lady Lill, a singing comedy; for Professor D. L. Lewis to lecture on Temperance and The Scripture; for Kings Comedy Company to perform "Little Lord Fauntleroy" and for the appearance of The New York Stars, a vocal and instrumental group. Pulaski citizens were now taking a more active interest in the opera house. The Pulaski Dramatic Club performed several times, and a new club, The Patterson Dramatic Company, was formed. The winter season closed with commencement exercises of Martin College and Pulaski’s public schools. The summer months are idle for the opera house, but interest rekindles with the opening of Giles County’s schools and the fair.
After such a prosperous year for the Opera House, the town is shocked when A. M. Notgrass announced on Dec. 14, 1893, that the Opera House will close Christmas never to be opened again. “Manager Notgrass states that the new owner declines to make a new lease. Pulaski is too good a town to do without amusements of this sort, and a new opera house should be erected.” Mr. Notgrass had hoped to reopen the Opera House, but decided to abandon the idea due to excessive rent. Although no manager was contracted, outside theatre companies continued to make appearances at the opera house. Among those performing was political leader and activist, Bob Taylor, to lecture on "The Paradise of Fools." A guarantee had been signed by prominent businessmen to assure Bob Taylor’s appearance.
On May 21, 1894, commencement exercises for local schools were held at the Opera House. In addition to those held in previous years, Pulaski’s colored high school held commencement at the opera house on June 28 for the first time. In the fall, the doors opened again with the appearance of the Ford Dramatic Company on October 25 followed by Bob Taylor with his latest lecture, "Visions and Dreams." Five hundred and fifty Pulaski citizens turned out for the famous lecturer. The Citizen reported that the Chattanooga News stated that “Taylor’s new lecture if 50 percent better than his previous lectures, The Fiddle and The Bow and The Paradise of Fools.” December 10 heralds the appearance of Henry Waterson, editor of the Courier Journal of Louisville, Kentucky, and an orator of national reputation to speak to Pulaski audiences. On December 24, the Henry Minstrel Company would be in Pulaski, and there would be matinees for the children.
A new year opened at the opera house, and A. M. Notgrass again took the lease. Beginning the season were appearances by several minstrel shows. In the Feb. 21, 1895, Citizen, local citizens voice their opinion. “We do not in the least object to a minstrel show, but we would like to have some lecturers such as George R. Wendling and some actors such as Henry Irving for variety. Of course, we cannot expect many of the best theatrical companies. Our town and opera house are both too small.”
Our small town and opera house may have had limited major productions, but good outside and local performances prevailed. On March 28, 1895, the Schubert Symphony Club and Lady Quartette opened at the opera house. The Club drew a large crowd and planned to return. "The Merchant of Venice" and "The Burglar" were presented by a company of Pulaski amateurs during the spring season. The end of the season brought the commencement exercises of the local schools. The fall season in 1895 opened with the famous Georgia Richards and Pringles Minstrel Show.
A fund raiser for the Sam Davis monument was held at the opera house November 19. The entertainment consisted of a series of tableaux and pictures illustrating important incidents in the life of Sam Davis. The year closed with a bang of great performances. On November 14, the celebrated opera singer, Signorina Moreska, entertained to a large crowd at the hall followed on the 28th with the play "Doctor Faustus," which was seldom seen outside the larger cities. Mr. John B. Hymer had prepared the play for presentation in smaller towns.
1896 began a new year for the opera house. On the agenda for the hall was a much needed coat of paint and the addition of 200 chairs. At this time, the seats in the rear were being elevated so they were as desirable as any other theater. Pulaski’s call for variety was answered in 1896 by many versed and talented performers of the day among which was a familiar face, Bob Taylor, the great lecturer, and his brother, Alf, who spoke on "Yankee Doodle of Dixie." Mrs. C. O. Baker of Chicago made an appearance on February 27 to speak to the ladies of Pulaski. On the lighter side was the appearance of the Tennessee Plantation Minstrels, composed of local talent performing "Fabio Romani," said to be “a wild goose chase.” Pulaski society enjoyed class concerts given by Mr. Lidie Auirett Rivers and his pupils assisted by Pulaski’s orchestra on May 28. In the following weeks, commencement exercises by local schools were held. A new type entertainment was presented at the opera house December 10t by the Honorable Willington Vandiver. Mr. Vandiver is a story teller of great renown presenting his best monologue, "The Missing Rib." This Alabama attorney was a good, funny speaker. The following night brought the Schumann's Ladies Orchestra for a night of outstanding musical selections. The year ended with performances from the local dramatic club bringing another good season to a close.
The close of the season brought about the addition of the new drop curtain described in detail in the December 10 issue of the Citizen. The paper stated: “The work on the new drop curtain was completed this week and shows a degree of artistic skill absent from the old curtain. The central scene is from the famous Ben Hur chariot race. This is displayed to advantage by looping back the rich curtain whose folds form the top margin of the drop curtain. At the lower corner is cupid holding a scroll which stretches across the stage to a vase of tropical plants at the lower right. The space surrounding the chariot race is divided by artistic scroll work into advertising cards and tastily done advertisements of Pulaski business houses complete the work.” The opera house is now ready for the new year.
The year 1897 opens with Miss Laura Bell Coleman of Nashville giving an exhibition on hypnotism. This was the only entertainment during the winter season which closed with Martin College’s and Pulaski’s public schools commencement exercises. The fall season began on September 2 with the performance of Miss Cynthia Carter, a pianist, who was accompanied by Mrs. Rivers, a pianist, and Mrs. Smith and Mr. Lanhan, singers. On October 21, the Ford Dramatic Company appeared for one week presenting a different play each night. On Monday night, Dixieland; Tuesday night, An American Hero; Wednesday night, Under the Lions Paw; and so on for the rest of the week. On December 9, “the opera house furniture and fixtures were sold by trustees Saturday to E. F. McKissack for $180. Mr. McKissack said he would run the opera house a while but is not ready to give details.”
The opera house continues to open her doors for performances in 1898. On January 20, the Fields and Hanson Minstrel Show opened the new year. Continuing on into the winter season are local shows, and finally in the late spring, the Martin College and public schools commencement exercises. The fall season at the opera house had only two scheduled performances; i.e., the Daniel Darleigh play, "Back On the Farm," on November 24 followed on the 25 by the "Corning Daily Journal." Oliver Scott’s Minstrel Show closed the year on December 2. Mr. McKissack showed a definite lack of interest in the opera house. He seldom contracted for any outside performances; but the citizens of Pulaski were hopeful that with the coming of the new year, the owner would have the time and resources to make the necessary contracts. The new year held no great outlook for the opera house. There was one performance by local talent scheduled during the winter season. The play, "The Real Widow Brown," was performed on January 15 to a good crowd. The fall season opened on November 16 with local musical talent. Mrs. Exell and her piano pupils were accompanied by the singing of Mrs. Wales and Mrs. Brown.
On December 1, a benefit for the King’s Daughters was held. It was an unusual sort of amusement where reproductions of famous paintings were sold. Secured for a performance on December 8 is a mammoth colored minstrel show composed of 45 people performing Wrights Original Nashville Student and Gideon's Big Band Minstrel. In the Pulaski Citizen on December 14, it is stated that “A. M. Notgrass, the hustling manager of the opera house, has secured the Reverend Frank A. Wells as lecturer for December 20, closing a century of entertainment at the opera house."
The mild depression evident in Pulaski at the beginning of the 1900s affects the entertainment of this time. The winter season is slow with little interest in the few local performances given. The big event of the year is the appearance of former Governor, R. L. Taylor, on November 22 to present the latest in his series of lectures, "Sentiment."
“Free show to the citizens of Pulaski,” announced the paper in 1901. “A.M. Notgrass has scheduled the performance of Kalfiels Minstrel Show to promote the coming out of the citizens to patronize the opera house.”
On February 21, the opera house played host to The Tennessee Plantation Minstrels to raise funds for the proposed Sam Davis monument. The Pulaski Daughters of the Confederacy entertained at the opera house on April 9. The fundraiser was a success, and another performance was in the planning stage.
An announcement in the April 11 issue of The Citizen said, “Thanks are due E. E. Bennett, lessee of the opera house for naming again A. M. Notgrass manager. The paper and people of this town back E. E. Bennett in the hope for a successful year and many more years to come at the opera house.” The renowned Justin Thatcher, a great tenor of the day, was scheduled for a May 1st performance to benefit the Pulaski Episcopal Church. On May 9, Mr. Thatcher is joined by the Chicago Concert Club for a one-night performance. The April 11 editor of The Citizen, which stated E. E. Bennett had leased the opera house may also have heralded some other changes as well. At this time, the opera house may have undergone a change in ownership. E. F. McKissack sold the opera house to Austin Hewitt. I have concluded this from evidence found in the Pulaski courthouse. On Dec. 14, 1901, there is a deed stating the sale of the opera house by owner, Austin Hewitt, to Andrew L. King for the sum of $12,500. Mr. King had taken a great interest in the opera house and had worked with A. M. Notgrass to obtain the best traveling shows to perform in Pulaski.
The 1902 season began with the appearance of former Governor Robert Taylor, lecturing on his latest subject, "The Old Plantation," followed on January 16 with a local talent group performing "A Noble Outcast." February 28 was the date scheduled for the Old Fiddlers Contest to benefit the King’s Daughters. This unusual entertainment drew a large number of participants and an enthusiastic crowd. The fall season opened with the famous lecturer, A. W. Hawks, of Baltimore on October 2. Mr. Hawk’s lecture, "Sunshine and Shadows," had received national acclaim from his peers. The opening of the Mozart Symphony Club was on October 27. The performance was to benefit the Sam Davis monument.
“Out of the ordinary is the introduction of the sing-a-phone, a music box which accurately reproduces the human voice. The sing-a-phone will be at the opera house November 27 reproducing the voices of the great singers of the day," the Citizen announced.
1902 was a very productive and prosperous year for the opera house and the citizens of Giles County. This was a turning point in the history of the opera house. The change of ownership produced a successful season, and this success is evident in the years to follow.
Mr. King showed great interest in both the hall and the town. He took the time to contract A. M. Notgrass as manager and worked with him in attracting and contracting outside talent during the next 30 years. 1927 brought about the organization of the Little Theatre Guild. “The Guild incorporated itself in September of that year. It became the first such organization in Tennessee to be incorporated.” The Selwyn Brothers, New York actors and members of the famous Lamb’s Club, had been traveling with Robert Mantess’s Shakespeare Group and were scouting around for a Southern engagement. Hearing about the exceptional success of the Pulaski’s Little Theatre Guild, they came to investigate. They were so impressed with Pulaski’s organization of the Guild that they returned several times giving invaluable advice. Over the next 10 years, the Little Theatre Guild prospered, opening to a full house with each performance. The Guild presented 12 performances with a variety of entertainment.
The highlight of the entertainment and the life of the Pulaski Guild was David Rhea’s "Sam Davis - The Immortal Scout." This play was a significant achievement, showing such marked acting ability, authentic costumes and artistic lighting effects that the fame of the local group spread far and wide.
The opera house doors were opened during the '30s for the productions of Pulaski’s Little Theatre Guild only. During this time, interest in theatrical entertainment lessened. In the late '30s, the opera house closed its doors, bowing out of the spotlight it had held for so long and gave way to progress, the introduction of the walk-in theatre.
“The hall was modeled by architects professionally versed in the science of acoustics, with special reference to the blending of echoes so as to destroy them.”
The Pulaski Citizen
– The Pulaski Citizen, Dec. 11, 1868
Center for the Arts
A note from the researcher, Kimesia Chiles Isbell, written in the March 29, 1983
The opera house still stands waiting for her hall to ring again with joyous entertainment. The opera house doors have been closed for all these years and during this time, lack of attention and maintenance have taken their toll. Many of the exterior architectural features have been removed or marred during this period of abandonment. The interior has also suffered greatly. Little remains of its once beautifully frescoed ceiling. All of the furniture and fixtures have been removed, leaving only the stage with its beautifully detailed wings and graceful curving balcony. The State of Tennessee, Governor Lamar Alexander and the Giles County Historical Society have now taken a combined interest in preserving the architectural landmarks in Pulaski. Old theaters are of particular interest nationwide. They are proving to be of great interest because almost all are architecturally and historically significant and are readily adaptable for the contemporary performing arts usage. Most of the historic theaters were build to be the focal point of a community’s cultural life, and their architectural significance stems from this fact. These buildings served as community gathering places not only for entertainment but for social events, educational lectures, political conventions and rallies, commencements and town meetings as well. There has been a growing need for theaters since 1965 with the increased interest and rapid growth in the performing arts. This has, in turn, created a demand for adequate performing spaces and facilities. In the renovating of old theaters for contemporary use, changes must be made to accommodate the demands of modern theater technology, to satisfy contemporary building codes and to provide the creature comforts required.
Restored and functioning historic theaters have played an important role in the revitalization of economically depressed areas. In both urban and non-urban areas, existing businesses benefit and compatible businesses such as hotels, restaurants, cinemas, bookstores, boutiques and art galleries are spawned. New business creates new jobs and new tax revenues. The increased activity also attracts new residents to the community. This one theater can trigger a chain reaction that could lead to the revitalization of our entire area.
Pulaski is not an economically depressed area as defined by today's standards. Our town does have tremendous historic importance. Our opera house is possibly the only remaining opera house from that era in Tennessee. According to National Register of Historic Places documents, it is perhaps the oldest remaining opera house in Tennessee and among the oldest in the country. Giles Countians have talked and worked for the restoration of this opera house in years past but have been unable to concentrate the efforts needed to accomplish such a project. Homecoming Tennessee '86 is the idea of Governor Alexander for the purpose of promoting the restoration and renovation of historic places in Tennessee. We now have the chance to get not only Giles County involved in the project, but the State as well.
I am working on the opera house as my major at the O’More School of Design. The opera house is a restoration project consisting of the renovation of the opera house and adjoining office area. I have proposed several uses for the opera house, many of which are those for which it was originally used; but I have also proposed additional renovation for use as a movie theater. The old office areas will be utilized as dressing areas, rehearsal space, costume storage and a concession and eating area with an adjoining gift shop. To meet the standards for Handicapped and Fire Codes, the addition of an elevator and bathrooms to the existing area will be necessary.
The opera house brought about an unprecedented era in the lives of Giles Countians during its 50 years of existence. Pulaski, in the late 1980s, now is the chance to restore the opera house and gain the benefits as our predecessors did. The opera house during its active years promoted cultural growth as Pulaski prospered. Through my studies and with local and state involvement, we too can prosper and reap the cultural benefits the restoration of the opera house will promote in Pulaski.