NOW SHOWING at the Opera House: “The Deacon”

Opera House Play Bill 1907

An early 20th century play bill found at Agnew’s Restaurant near Baldwyn, Mississippi

On the western wall of Agnew’s Restaurant, just to the left of the cash register, is a framed scrap of paper, a hand bill for a theatrical production presented sometime and somewhere in the distant past. Its three-line heading reads,

“OPERA HOUSE.

Friday Night, Dec. 20.

THE DEACON.”

The bill lists the play’s cast of characters, its expected duration (“Time, Two and One-Half Hours.”), and a summary of the acts that would be presented. Finally, at the very bottom of the bill, the general public is informed that the production is offered “Admission Free.”

Now, I’ve seen this play bill many times, as Agnew’s is a firm and regular stop on our work gang’s weekly lunch circuit, but it was only a couple months ago that I asked eatery-owner Debbie Moore about it. Debbie informed me that the play bill had been given to her mother, Lana Sue Kesler, by long-time Baldwyn resident Jewel Tapp, when Debbie and husband Rodney were first collecting “historical decorations” for their restaurant.

As we pondered the paper’s possible origins, I remembered an account I had heard, from Billy Roberson, regarding a Baldwyn “Opera House,” where as early as 1904, professional theater groups performed. Roberson’s father-in-law, the late Claude Gentry, had described this particular Opera House in his 1989 book “Main Street Movie.” The theater he described was located in a 2nd-floor, 50’ by 80’ space over two buildings on the north side of Main Street. It seated in excess of 300 people, and was accessed by a stairway that rose from street level.

Maybe the “OPERA HOUSE,” the one named in the play bill on the wall at Agnew’s, IS this Baldwyn Municipal Opera House. That certainly seemed like a plausible explanation.

“Yep, that’s probably it.”

“Probably.”

I wondered if there might be something else to be discovered from this scrap of paper with just a bit more detective work. Debbie graciously made a photo of the document, and sent it to me.

“Let us know what you find out.”

And now, two months later, here goes:

In a search for the play “The Deacon”, I first uncovered, not the play itself, but an advertisement FOR the play, in the final pages of another turn-of-the-20th-century book. This lucky find revealed something new and important, the name of the play’s author, Horace C. Dale. Armed with this lead, I soon found the play’s publication date – 1892 – and finally, a month later, an on-line copy of all five acts, the comic tale of a diamond robbery, eventually resolved by the title character. With “The Deacon” found, the next question arose: “When was the exact performance, the one publicized on the wall at Agnew’s, performed … and by whom?” Certainly, it wasn’t produced before 1892.

There were 14 people named in the cast including Clarence Milton, Lula Caldwell and Nick Latimer. Though no name was specifically known to me, several were at least familiar as “Baldwyn names.” Using Ancestry.com, I eventually found information on all but two cast members. The entire group had indeed lived in Baldwyn in the early 1900’s, and they were ALL born – get this – between the years 1888 and 1896. Additionally, I noticed that one of the cast members – Paul Thomas – had died young, at the age of 22, in 1916. Obviously, the play had to have been performed in 1916 or earlier (and was almost surely performed in Baldwyn).

No year was provided in the date shown on the Agnew’s flyer, only “Friday Night, Dec. 20,” but the cast search had also revealed that the play’s youngest performer, Edith Sloan, was not born until 1896. The play could ONLY have occurred between 1896 and 1916. During that 20-year period, there were three Friday, December 20th’s: 1901, 1907 and 1912.

In 1901, the oldest cast member (Emma Smythe, born in 1888) was 13 years old, and Edith Sloan was 5. It seems very unlikely that this 5-act play would have been performed by children so young. I ruled out 1901. By 1912, Smythe would have been 24 and Sloan 16, with all other cast members falling between those ages. While this age range might not be out of the question for a “community theater” group, it seems inconsistent with the times that 20-year-olds would have produced this type of theatrical performance without more mature cast members on hand.

The most likely date of the play is December 20, 1907. In that year, each cast member would have been “school age,” from Edith Sloan’s 11 to Emma Smythe’s 19. In fact, apart from Sloan, all the other cast members would have been in high school at the time. When taking into account that the final line on the play bill is “ADMISSION FREE,” it seems logical that the production was a school play.

My conclusion to all this is that on Friday, December 20, 1907, fourteen Baldwyn school students, mostly high-schoolers, performed the Horace C. Dale 5-act play “The Deacon” in the “Opera House.”

But was this “Opera House” THE municipal opera house on Main Street? Well, most likely, it was not. From several independent sources that recounted stories of early 1900’s Baldwyn, the term “Opera House” was found to refer, not only to the city’s Main Street theater, but also to an open room on the 2nd floor of the 1904 schoolhouse, which stood approximately where the Baldwyn water tower is now. The most recent identification of this school location as an “opera house” was provided to me by Jimmy Cunningham who possessed a very similar play bill to the one hanging at Agnew’s. This bill, however, was clearly a school play, the senior class play of 1922, in fact, and was held in – you guessed it – the “Opera House.” It makes sense, when all the factors are considered, that a production by Baldwyn High School students, especially one that was “admission free,” would have been held on school grounds and not in the for-profit, downtown theater.

I reported back to Debbie Moore all that I had found out about the little scrap of paper that hung on their wall there at Agnew’s. She was surprised that so much could be scraped together from such a small, simple item. I was a little surprised myself. The “What,” “When,” and “Where” now answered, we looked at the paper and its still enigmatic cast list. Debbie asked, probably rhetorically, “Who ARE all these people?”

I thought, “Well now, that’s a pretty good question, too.” Next time.

Note: The Baldwyn Municipal Opera House, located above 110 & 112 West Main Street, was destroyed by a deadly tornado in 1942, and Baldwyn’s first brick school building, a two-story structure that existed near the current location of the city’s U.S. Post Office, burned in 1943. Both venues were lost to the community, over the course of just a few months, approximately 70 years ago.

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Filed under Goings On In Baldwyn, Mississippi, Mississippi History

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