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  • Writer's pictureHistoric Columbus

Showstoppers and Curtain Raisers: Music and Theater in a Culturally Maturing City (1870 – 1900)

Hello everyone! For August and September, we will showcase our town's cultural arts history, along with special spotlights on local icons such as Blind Tom, Ma Rainey, Nunally Johnson, Carson McCullers, and Alma Thomas. All of these stories (and more!) will become a part of a second history exhibit at the RiverCenter, opening in January. Today's spotlight looks at Columbus following the Civil War up until the turn of the century. More people were moving into town from the country and Columbus had to figure out not only how to employ all of them - white and newly freed - but also how we, as a community, were going to grow and change from a cultural perspective.

There were very few Black-managed theaters prior to 1900, but by 1910 there were 53 theaters owned by African Americans in the United States, with the large majority (42) of them in the South. This will be a large part of next week's History Spotlight. Thank you all so much for your continued interest in these spotlights. Remember, if you have any ideas - I'm always grateful for them. Historic preservation only flourishes because of your passion for the history of this town, its stories, and its people. If you have any questions or concerns, never hesitate to contact the HCF Office – 706-322-0756 or SOURCES: In Order of Appearance: Chronicling 135 years on America’s Most Celebrated Stage, F. Clason Kyle, 2006. Showboats to Softshoes: A Century of Musical Development in Columbus, Georgia from 1828 to 1928, Katherine H. Mahan, 1967. Columbus on the Chattahoochee by Etta Blanchard Worsley, 1951.


The only pause in the world of theater in Columbus occurred during the actual Battle of Columbus on April 16, 1865. By the Fall of that year, show troupes began to reorganize and return. Women of the city put together whatever they could for dresses and attended the theater. Following the Civil War and even during Reconstruction, Columbus began a cultural maturation equal to that of any city its size in the nation. Columbus Public School system, the second oldest school system in the state of Georgia, was established in 1867 and several fine private schools offering courses in music were opened. City and county government offices were also more efficiently organized to meet the growing needs of the area. New organizations and institutions such as the Springer Opera House, larger city church buildings and pipe organ installations, and a city band all enhanced the growth and development of Columbus. Each of Columbus’ theaters from the earliest log structure to Temperance Hall had been an acoustical, technical, and scenic improvement over its predecessor. Prior to the Civil War, there had been talk of the need for a more respectable hall. No action had followed that talk until the summer of 1869.

According to the Columbus Enquirer of June 20, 1869, five actions had resulted from a June 19th meeting held in the banking office of John King. First, King was elected President Pro-Tem of the Public Hall Association and W.C. Chipley was elected Secretary. Second, a committee consisting of L.G. Bowers, Joseph Hanserd, and George P. Swift, Sr. was formed to solicit subscriptions to the stock of the Association. Third, other prominent businessmen, H.H. Epping, W.L. Salisbury, and Joseph L. Morton, were named to a committee to ascertain the probably cost of various sites proposed. Fourth, the hall was to be named for the person who “may be found to be the largest stockholder.” And fifth, the next largest stockholder would have the exclusive control of a box in said hall. Over the next year, the stock committee received subscriptions for a new public hall. The “site” committee also received proposals from citizens on eligible locations. In the May 31, 1870, edition of the Enquirer, under the headline “The New Hall,” it was reported that the new hall would be over the stores of Mr. Springer. “As the location is central, and there is no possibility of loss to stockholders, we presume the enterprise will be commenced at an early day. The ground on which the proposed hall is to be erected is 100x85, and the audience rooms and galleries can be made sufficiently large to hold 2,500 persons.”

Demolition of Mr. Springer’s store at Crawford and Oglethorpe Streets (now 10th Street and First Avenue) and the opera house construction began in the summer of 1870 and ended in February of 1871. Professor Smith and Company of Montgomery produced some of the finest scene painting and fresco work the city had seen. Construction was handled by Barringer and Morton for its woodwork, and E.A. Faber for the brickwork, plastering, and stage architecture. The lower story was divided into four storefronts, and the two upper stories comprised the stage, audience chamber, and galleries. The seating capacity ended up being closer to 700 than the earlier predicted 2,500. The first event to be held on stage at the new hall was on February 21, 1871. The opening of the new opera house was held under the auspices of Trinity Episcopal Church to help raise funds for a new church building. It was billed as a “Grand Amateur Concert, to be given by the ladies and gentlemen of Trinity Church, assisted by Professor Chase and a number of amateurs of the city.”

George W. Chase was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1834. He was teaching vocal and instrumental music in Columbus as early as 1857. He and his wife Abbie had many children, six of whom assisted in establishing the Chase Conservatory in the 1890s, a music academy of the highest rank. Chase directed the Conservatory until his death in 1910, with members of his family carrying on until the death of son Louis Chase in 1942.

Katie Putnam was the first professional star performer to grace the Springer stage. She became such a favorite that over the period of two decades, Katie performed in eleven of the seasons. The Columbus Enquirer reported that at her March 3, 1871, performance, she delivered a lecture to the young men of the city on the evils of card playing. For two years, Miss Putnam announced and gave farewell performances, but then continued to make annual visits. An 1886 critique termed her “a charming comedienne, vocalist, and everybody’s favorite.”

Columbus was also exposed to celebrities that were not exactly thespians in the professional sense of the term but were more categorized as performers. These would include luminaries such as the famous Tom Thumb, Irish playwright Oscar Wilde, professional boxing champion John L. Sullivan, and political orators such as William Jennings Bryan.

P.T. Barnum (of Barnum and Bailey's Circus fame) and Tom Thumb are pictured to the left. The legendary Tom Thumb stood just over three feet tall. His actual name was Charles Stratton. Tom and his wife made two appearances at the Springer Opera House in 1876 and 1883.

During the latter part of the 1800s, social patterns of living soon began to change as more people seeking any form of employment moved to the cities. From the 1870s to the 1950s, thousands of rural African Americans migrated to Columbus to build a better life. A commercial revival alone would fail to employ the hundreds of idle workers – white and newly freed – following the Civil War in Columbus. The town still desperately needed a revival of its many industries. The number of iron foundries began to grow in the 1870s, followed by the increase of textile mills, and then other smaller industries started to flourish. Changes were also happening at the Springer Opera House. Prior to his death in 1882, Francis J. Springer turned over the management of the opera house to George J. Burrus and in 1884, Theo M. Foley took charge. Programs at the Springer were also reflective of the social changes in Columbus. Opera no longer held first place. Minstrels, musical comedies, comedy, and some drama were on the bill at the Springer until it closed temporarily in 1900 for a major renovation. (Note: The Springer’s history will continue in the upcoming History Spotlights as we get into the twentieth century part of the story.)

Outside of the Springer, there were also other types of entertainment happening in Columbus during the late 1800s. These would range from amusement venues to outdoor concerts, political celebrations, and music education in schools. All of these forms put together and happening at this same time would result in our cultural arts growth as a community. One thing is for certain, it is music that ties it all together. Most notably in the amusement section was Columbus’ equivalent of a German Beer Garden, Villa Reich. Frederick Reich built the Villa Reich in c. 1873. He brought back from a trip to Germany the plans of “the Korsal,” one of the most noted gambling houses in Europe. Villa Reich was to be a place of entertainment in Columbus. It occupied the entire block bound by Broadway, Front Avenue, 5th and 6th Streets, and the house was surrounded by an elaborate garden of ornamental shrubs and fruit trees with an outdoor band stand. In addition to the beer garden, the facility provided a skating rink, a location for dances, picnics, and dancing lessons. For twenty years it was an important place for amusement in Columbus. Villa Reich was closed after Frederick Reich’s death and later demolished between 1900 and 1907. (It is pictured below.)

Holidays were often chosen for political rallies. Emancipation Day drew the largest crowds. The first celebration occurred on January 1, 1863, when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Each year thereafter the size of the crowd and more bands joined the procession. Music was featured in the entire ceremony as is evidenced by the report in the Enquirer (Note: a date for the report was not given in Mahan’s book; however, this paragraph is placed with the chapter on Social and Public Occasions 1875 – 1900).

Emancipation Proclamation Metropolitan Baptist Church, 1 PM All the societies male and female Will join in the procession at the Church.

The line of march was given from Broadway to the church. All the men marched with brass bands heading and ending the parade. Women members joined the group outside the church, singing as they came. Music opened the order of service. Songs or band selections were interspersed between readings and orations.

Wildwood Park became a popular outdoor resort for young and old from 1890 to 1919. It was the only such resort at that time in the county. Crowds frequented it for picnicking, swimming, fishing, boating, dancing in the pavilion, and baseball games on the baseball field, about where the Columbus High School stands today. There were swings under the tall trees and a zoo, with alligators, rabbits, a peacock, and a few other small animals in cages to please the children. The Easter egg hunts each Spring were their chief delight. Trolley rides on the Electric Line then became popular. The old “Dummy” line, built in 1888 by the Columbus Railroad Company, wound around the lake (what is now Lakebottom Park) out to Wynnton School, westward to St. Elmo School, and back into town every twenty minutes. Band concerts were held in Wildwood Park during the week and on Sunday afternoons in the summer. Train tickets to the park were only a few cents. The creation of the trolley lines by the Columbus Railroad Company led to more development in the “suburbs” and made it much easier for citizens to move around town. These lines would create access, along with more social and educational possibilities.

During the early years of the public schools, music classes were not always available in all of the public schools, so private instruction in voice, instruments, and dancing were offered. Private schools were also continuing to grow in number during this time. They offered the best music education available. The Columbus Female College (pictured above), 1875 – 1884, was located on Third Avenue and Fifteenth Street. They were averaging 40 instrumental and 13 vocal majors within the college. Curriculum was based on that of Mendelssohn’s Leipzig Conservatory. Teachers were obtained from the conservatory when possible. Italian and French were also required studies of the students.

Chappell Female College was organized after the Columbus Female College burned. It was located just a block down on Sixteenth Street and Third Avenue in a Doric Greek Revival style mansion. Teachers here were recent graduates of the Boston Conservatory. Pearce’s College or Columbus College was opened by Hayward Pearce in 1893. Meeting at the Lion House (1316 Third Avenue), the college had classes from kindergarten through the collegiate level. Well known teachers included Misses Bessie and Sally Waddell and Miss Annie Backus. They took charge after Mr. Pearce went to Gainesville to found Brenau College. George and Louis Chase (Chase Conservatory) had charge of the music program. Wynnton College offered music to men and women students for a short time. In 1889, a four-year college with vocal music was announced. Miss Mary Kivlin, founder of the Orpheus Club, taught voice and piano; other teachers were from Boston, Yale, and Wesleyan. Part of the building was incorporated into Wynnton School.

The period of 1875 to 1900 was also characterized by a gradual development of social conscience or awareness as was noted in the establishment of kindergartens and schools for the children of the mills and factories. Such was also evidenced by the great religious revivals and various movements. Organ recitals were given frequently at the churches and widely attended. During this quarter of a century, the many facets of the music trade made it a major industry for the entire area. The city entered the new century as Georgia’s third largest in population as well as in the cultural arts.

Next Week: Next Thursday, we will continue the story of Columbus' cultural arts history with highlighting development in the early part of the twentieth century to include the interior renovation of the Springer Opera House, the history of the Liberty and the Chitlin' Circuit, and the beginning of the movie theater in Columbus. Thank you all again for your continued interest in these emails and for your support of preservation! See you next week!

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