A Glimpse at Theater Through the Early Years in Clarksburg

By Bob Stealey | October 17, 2014
 
Once again with the help of "History of Clarksburg" by Dorothy Davis (1970), I'd like to present for readers somewhat of a chronological listing and description of the various theater houses that once existed in Clarksburg. Most of these served residents of the area in the late 19th and the 20th centuries.

But before the listing and description, I want to include some words by the author to illustrate an instance in particular from back in 1886 from which she quoted so masterfully.

Mrs. Davis pointed out that in the decades following the War Between the States and prior to the construction of the Traders Building, which took place in 1894-95, the second floor of the W.P. Holden Building, located on the southwest corner of Third Street and Traders Avenue--the Home Industry Bakery is located on or near that spot today--housed the opera house and theater.

"The same room must have provided space for other large community gatherings, since commencement exercises of the high school occurred there in the early 1890s," she wrote, adding, "The Clarksburg News, Saturday, May 15, 1886, reviewed the first performance by the Clarksburg Concert Company in the music Hall on Third Street (Holden Building) in detail."

An article in that publication stated, I thought rather humorously: "The ladies, as requested in last week's News, left off their eight-story hats, so that all had a good view of the stage and performance. ..."

That piece explained that the stage was 13-by-17-feet, on which was placed an elegant Hardman Piano, and across the front was a guard-chain that added to the appearance. The scenery was painted in Chicago by Sosman & Landes and consisted of four scenes--a parlor, a kitchen, a wood and a street scene.

"The drop curtain, which is simply immense, represents two partially draped curtains, back of which is seen a view of a small village with a river covered with boats, with the hills in the distance," the article writer said. "Taken all together, it is as beautiful a little hall as any in the state, and it is to be hoped the company, which has expended $1,500 in fitting it up, will be amply repaid for their outlay."

From 1890, according to Mrs. Davis, theatrical companies that stopped in Clarksburg cited the audience for which they played as the most receptive of any between Baltimore and Cincinnati. My, that was quite a feather in the city's cap!

"Throngs turned out to the performances for 20 years (1890-1910) at Traders Opera House," she wrote. "One old-timer recalled in 1964 the excellent bar located in a room adjoining the theater, where the men gathered during intermission. Shortly before the drama was to resume, a gong, which hung in the bar, was sounded to signal the time for the men to scurry back to their seats."

In November 1902, another local publication, The Harrison County Herald, described the Traders Opera House, as follows:

"The seating capacity of this city theater is 704. The house is up-to-date in all respects, being equipped with electric lights, heated by steam, well ventilated and in all other respects suitably provided with all the essentials of a first-class playhouse. The stage is of large dimensions and with 18 sets of scenery at command affords every advantage for the production of the best plays on the road."

Mrs. Davis explained that audiences also attended shows produced by local talent, for under the auspices of the Marcato Club, which hired a coach from New York for a production in January 1909, "the grand opera house was filled to its utmost capacity to hear the beautiful and catchy little musical play 'The Geisha.' The Traders Opera House burned in 1911.

In 1902, Jack Marks established the first motion picture house, the Star, on the east side of South Fourth Street.

"Mr. Marks, who had built nickelodeons in cities across the country, had sold them and then had moved on (but) did not find a buyer at the time he finished the Clarksburg show house," the author noted. "He remained in town to operate the 'movie' and liked the city so well that he decided to stay."

Mrs. Lee Haymond and J. Carl Vance, in 1911, built the "Victoria Opera House" on West Pike Street next to the R.T. Lowndes residence (Waldomore) and announced the opening of the theater under the management of John Duffy for September 1911.

Mrs. Davis said the name of the theater was changed to the "Palace" in 1915, and to the "Gillis" after Mr. Charles Gillis bought the business in the early 1920s, and Claude Robinson managed the Gillis from 1925 until 1927.

In 1912, the Clarksburg Theater Company built a $40,000 theater on the north side of Pike Street not far from the Masonic Temple, and gave Reuben Robinson, who had been a manager of the Traders Opera House and had bought stock in the new theater company, "Full power to do everything requisite (to running the theater) as fully as such corporation could do itself,"  as it was stated in the Harrison County, W.Va., Deed Book.

"The gala opening of the Robinson Grand (444 West Pike Street) occurred February 5, 1913," it was reported in The Daily Telegram of Clarksburg on the next day. "Mr. Claude Robinson, who had been the treasurer of the New Amsterdam Theater in New York and whose wife had been an actress with David Belasco, replaced his brother Reuben as manager of the Robinson Grand in 1913."

The Robinson Grand was the 13th house in the United States in which sound was installed (circa 1927). The Robinson Grand burned May 31, 1939, but Claude Robinson restored it from 1939-40 at a cost of $600,110.

In 1913, Frank R. Moore moved his residence from the southwest corner of Pike and Fourth streets and built the "Orpheum," which opened May 1, 1913, for Jack Marks, proprietor of the Star, to manage. It was later managed by Claude Robinson, from 1922 until it closed in 1929.
 

In 1917, Jack Marks built the $54,000 Moore's Opera House, which extended from Traders Avenue to the Orpheum on Frank Moore's land, the author stated.

Moore's Opera House opened to the public Monday, June 10, 1918, as 'West Virginia's Finest and Most Convenient Theater," with Charlie Chaplin acting the leading role in "A Dog's Life," Mrs. Davis wrote.
 
 
An agreement whereby Marks would operate the opera house "rent-free" until the building was paid for ended in 1923 (as recorded in the Harrison County, W.Va., Deed Book) when the business, then solvent, was leased by Moore (June 1923) to Claude Robinson, the Daily Telegram reported.

In 1920, a theater that was at one time named the "Odeon" and at another, the "Bijou," existed during the second decade of the 20th century at 311 West Pike Street, near the current location of Jackson Square.

In 1922, after purchasing the Bijou on West Main Street, Jack Marks changed the name to "Marks' Orpheum" and opened the theater continuously until the time of his death in 1952.
 
In 1927, Jack Marks built a $250,000, 62-by-183-foot building at 404 West Pike Street for a "Ritz" theater, which would seat 1,200. He operated the Ritz from October 1927 until August 1, 1930, when he sold the business to Warner Brothers, the Clarksburg Telegram stated in July 1930.

The Robinson Grand and Moore's Opera House were the assembly halls, as well as the theaters, in Harrison County for many years, according to Mrs. Davis.

"With the increased popularity of the motion picture as entertainment, the theaters with stages began to depend on 'movies' for income, and buildings designed only for motion pictures multiplied," Mrs. Davis said.

Of course, in the years after her book was published, numerous changes and additions were made in Clarksburg and Harrison County, to the delight of movie-goers. But alas, for the past 40 years or so, there have been no movie theaters in downtown Clarksburg, or, for that matter, within the city limits of Clarksburg.

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Today's Bible Verses: "You love Him even though you have never seen Him; though not seeing Him, you trust Him, and even now you are happy with the inexpressible joy that comes from heaven itself. And your further reward for trusting Him will be the salvation of your souls." -- I Peter 1:8-9

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