Garry BrewerGJ History Columnist

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December 18, 2012
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GJ HISTORY - Grand Junction's grand dame of entertainment: The Park Opera House

Once upon a time in Grand Junction, when there was not a paved street, an inter-urban trolley, or automobiles, there were two people - an actor and a young woman who, though strangers to one another, would be forever linked by one of the true gems of our city, the Park Opera House.Grand Junction residents always found a way to be entertained in the early days: a skating rink, an auditorium, and one of their favorites, a small opera house. The popularity of the opera house soon indicated a larger one was needed. The Grand Junction News on Jan. 6, 1892 reported the construction of a new opera house on Ute Avenue, between Fourth and Fifth streets (current home of the Museum of the Western Colorado and the museum parking lot). The much larger venue faced south, looking at the beautiful city park, and thus was named the Park Opera House.On June 23, 1892, the Park Opera House opened, with its first show. Haverly's Minstrels delighted everyone. The theater had all the modern conveniences of the time. It was made of brick and could seat 809 people. Eighty seats were in the balcony, while 369 made up the gallery. These were for those "not so affluent in worldly goods, but always rich in appreciation, applause, or hissing disapproval." The main floor was reserved for the elite, with 240 seats. Closest to the stage were 120 seats exclusively for the "very" elite "beauties and chivalrous gentlemen."In those days, the audience was part of the entertainment, with everyone watching to see who was wearing what, and who came with whom. The newspaper kept readers informed, even pointing out one time that the "first flesh and blood divorcee was in attendance" at a play. The new digs were spacious. There were five front rooms. One side had a ladies cloak room and toilets, and the opposite side hosted the gentlemen's facilities. The basement was 30-by-50 feet and 10 feet deep, and held the furnace room and storage for stage properties. When the weather got cold, the manager would stoke the two large heaters; its red glow promising warmth to patrons.Rules of behavior were posted. Proper applause was fine, but no whistling, yelling, "cat calls," and stomping of feet would be tolerated. Those indulging in annoying and uncalled for demonstrations would be invited to leave the premises. Ladies could remove their hats, gentlemen were not allowed to spit on the floor, and no one was allowed to sit or stand in the aisles. Lastly, the opera house was not responsible for lost items. The stage was 36-by-70 feet and provided three dressing rooms. The height of the rigging loft was 45 feet so that the curtain could be elevated without rolling it up. On the curtain there was a showpiece painting named the "Bay of Naples," and on either side were ads with the names of local businesses. The raising of the curtain would coincide with the arrival of the D. & R.G.R.R. train. If the train was late, the waiting audience would get more entertainment from the acting company, who sat on stage and interacted with the audience.On rare occasions, it was dangerous to leave the opera house after a show. Some citizens were set upon by "Hobo's, Bum's or Knight's of the Road, who were riding the rails through Grand Junction and just stopped off "to pick up some money from the locals."A PATRON DIESOn Nov. 6, 1907, Laura Ethel Renick, 20, of Whitewater along with her escort, Mr. Pettigo, came to watch a play called "A Desperate Chance." Laura had been ill for a long while with scarlet fever, but felt like she had recovered enough for an outing. The play had many exciting moments, with stage guns making noise. Laura would let out a startled cry each time. When the play ended Laura was in a state of nervousness. As she stood up and stepped into the aisle, she collapsed and died. The cause was a heart attack attributed to the effects of scarlet fever. Her brother, Roy G. Renick, and their mother were sent for to take Laura's lifeless body home to Whitewater. The family held the funeral service at the local Christian church and buried her in the Whitewater Cemetery next to her father, Washington Renick.DEATH CALLS AGAINLife moved on at the Park Opera House, but within three months of Laura's death, another tragedy occurred. On Feb. 18, 1908, the play "The Wheel of Love" was at the opening of its second act. As actor Hal Newton Carlyle, 65, was about to step on stage from the wings, he dropped dead of a heart attack. The players on stage were puzzled because of the nonappearance of the actor, but carried on without him. Then his body was discovered. At the end of the merry play the audience was notified that Mr. Carlyle had died.After the play, the stage company moved on to Salt Lake City, Utah. Mr. Carlyle's body was left with Mr. Bannister, the local undertaker. The stage company manager, Paul Gilmore, gave the undertaker Carlyle's wife's contact information, and told him that Hal was a Mason and a Knight of Pythias and to spare no cost with the funeral and burial of his friend. Mr. Gilmore was also sure that the local Masonic Lodge would perform the funeral and help with the cost. Mr. Gilmore took with him Hal Carlyle's personal belongings, including a wallet with a large number of papers, jewelry and money.The undertaker sent word to Mrs. Carlyle, but received no reply. Unfortunately, there was no record of Hal Newton Carlyle being a Mason or a Knight of Pythias. With no one to pay for the funeral and burial expenses, the undertaker sent a notice to Mrs. Carlyle that Hal Newton Carlyle's remains were headed for a pauper's grave in Potters Field in Grand Junction. Mrs. Carlyle contacted Mr. Daniel Frohman, one of the great theatrical managers of that day, and implored his help, as she had no money to take care of her husband's remains. Mr. Frohman, 2,000 miles away in New York, accommodated her and sent the funds necessary to bury Hal Carlyle in the Fairview Cemetery in Grand Junction. The Rev. C.W. Lyons of St. Matthew's Church was in charge of the service. A number of professional men, local theatrical people, and the general public attended the service for this actor, who had died as "a stranger in a strange land."FATE OF PARK OPERA HOUSEOver the years, the Park Opera House presented many fine acts. On the level of large metropolitans, our little town was treated to some of the most famous theatrical stars of that era. Among them was actor, comedian, dancer and vaudevillian Eddie Foy; composer, lyricist, actor, singer and dancer George M. Cohan; the Four Cohans in their full tilt comedy; and the royal family of stage, the Barrymores. As written by Richard E. Tope in his history of Grand Junction: "No such cultural experience had ever been, nor since, as that of seeing and hearing in person at the Park Opera House, such talent as was available in this isolated spot in Western Colorado." By 1912, the Park Opera House was condemned. Eventually, the property was sold to the C.D. Smith Company, which tore it down to make room for its new building. The opera house bricks were used in construction of various schools in Mesa County. The C.D. Smith Company thrived and many years later, it closed its doors permanently. The Smith family donated their building to the Museum of Western Colorado, where Western Colorado's history is stored and treasured. Commemorating the original building, the Daughters of the American Revolution, Mt. Garfield Chapter, placed a brass plaque in the parking lot of the museum, to mark the spot of the Park Opera House.As for Hal Newton Carlyle, his gravesite is unknown, as it is unclear which Fairview Cemetery he was buried in. The new Fairview Cemetery on Orchard Mesa doesn't show his gravesite, nor is there a headstone, even though he was given a largely attended funeral. Interesting, too, is there is no headstone in the Whitewater Cemetery for Laura Ethel Renick. Of the three known deaths related to the Park Opera House only one has a headstone - the brass plaque commemorating the Park Opera House.UNFINISHED BUSINESS?Several museum staff, on different occasions, have seen an apparition of a young woman standing on the staircase in the old Whitman School, used by the museum today. She is wearing 19th century period clothing, the same style that Laura Renick would have worn. The main school building was constructed just west of the old Park Opera House, before it was torn down, and an addition was later built. It extends onto the site of the opera house. Perhaps, Laura doesn't know she has passed, as her death was so sudden. Maybe she is still trying to find her way home to Whitewater. If you happen to see her, assure her that her parents and brother, Roy, are waiting for her. The play has ended, the curtain has dropped and it's OK to go home now. ------------------------Garry Brewer is storyteller of the tribe; finder of odd knowledge and uninteresting items; a bore to his grandchildren; a pain to his wife on spelling; but a locator of golden nuggets, truths and pearls of wisdom. Email Garry at & PHOTOS: Wanda Allen, Museum of Western Colorado, Loyd Files Room, Michael Menard, David Bailey, Bill Buvinger, Debbie Brockett, Grand Junction News, Daily Sentinel files, Snap Photo, Walter Walker files, Estelle Walker Reese files, Richard E. Tope files.

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The Post Independent Updated Dec 18, 2012 11:56AM Published Dec 18, 2012 11:55AM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.