Congratulations and thanks to our fabulous production team: Karyn Norwood, Mary VanBuren-Swasey, Michael Breiner, and Jake Barickman – with special acknowledgement to Fanny Mion-Mouton (former visiting graduate student from France).
For the complete listing of Vermont’s historical newspaper offerings on Chronicling America, click here.
When I first commenced my position here at VTDNP last May, I started working with The Bennington Evening Banner, a title published in Bennington, Vermont, from approximately 1903 to 1961. What initially piqued my interest while collating data about each issue of this newspaper were the advertisements for the Bennington Opera House. Diverse in topics, in gravity, and content, the variety of programs was intriguing, and viewed over the years, they paint a changing landscape in the entertainment industry in small-town Vermont, and certainly should be considered indicative of transitions in entertainment across America. My investigation has resulted thus far in a poster (viewable here), which was presented at the UVM Library Conference in August 2013, and this blog entry.
Like most towns in Vermont (and across America) in the 19th century, the fashionable must-have for entertainment was an opera house, where traveling vaudeville acts, musicians, opera, musicals, and plays could be shown. The opera house was built by Henry Putnam, a wealthy businessman, realtor, and inventor, who, frustrated by the lack of action in the town to construct an entertainment facility, set out to build it himself in 1892. Arguably the largest in Vermont when built, the opera house was equipped with the very latest in theater technology and could seat over 1,000 people:
“The opera house proper is built of brick, is 108 feet long, 64 feet wide…The parquet and dress circle have a capacity of 600. Over the dress circle is the balcony circle. In the rear of this is the gallery. The two have seating capacity of 400…From the center hangs a large electric light chandelier. There will be 200 electric lights in the auditorium, of which 36 will be foot-lights. The total cost of the house when completed and furnished will be about $35,000…” – from “Bennington’s New Opera House,” an article published in the Burlington Weekly Free Press, Nov. 11, 1892
After the first performance of MacBeth on December 10, 1892, one individual wrote, in an accurate appraisal of the opera house:
“It is well understood that an Opera House here cannot be a paying investment. It is built for public pleasure…Bennington owes Mr. H.W. Putman a debt of gratitude…for giving to a country town a metropolitan Opera House.” –“A.P.V.,” in an article days after the opening of the Opera House in the Bennington Banner, Dec. 16, 1892
Indeed, the opera house often was financially strapped throughout its existence; however, it proved to be lasting entertainment institution in Bennington, for until it burned down in February of 1959, it hosted a plethora of musicals, bands, plays, operas, movies, and more, often to a full house. As one Bennington citizen recalled decades later:
“People came from Hoosick Falls, N.Y., North Adams, Mass., Manchester and other places to see the plays. There were few nights when the “Standing Room Only” sign was not over the box office window. The reason for this popularity was the fact that the great stars and plays of Broadway came to Bennington for one-night stands, bringing their scenery and casts of sixty and more people.” (Walter C. Wood in Green Mountain Whittlins, Vol. IV, 1951)
Thought not as many as its name might indicate, the opera house did have opera performances.
Many performances were favorites at the theater, and they came back year after year for repeat shows, like Jason O’Neill as Monte Cristo, and Denman Thompson’s rural play Old Homestead. Mildred Holland, one of the premier actresses of the time, performed in 1904 in the Triumph of an Empress.
The film industry took off at the turn of the century. Like many local theaters, the opera house had to adapt to keep up with demand and local competition. In May of 1915, the opera house was equipped with a projector booth in the upper gallery and a screen. Opening day was May 31, 1915.
With the possibility of moving pictures, Americans across the country could see the world for the first time. Lyman Howe’s short films, such as the one shown below, transported Vermonters to Yosemite and beyond.
Famous “photoplay” actress Mary Pickford was America’s first movie darling. The opera house showed her silent film Daddy Long Legs in 1919. The film was silent, but as with many silent movies, a live orchestra performed alongside the film.
Unlike today, the opera house was a main vessel through which filmed public service announcements or news could be shared with the community. Open Your Eyes, a film shown in 1919, warned the public about the dangers of STDs (see below ad).
Throughout the progression of WWI, the opera house provided entertainment for the Bennington area, and also, it served on several occasions as a meeting hall for the community’s war efforts. Bernard Shaw’s romantic-comedy, Arms and the Man, was a popular war-time play about a romance between a Swiss soldier and girl from the Balkans. As many of the live performances at the opera house in the later 1910’s and beyond, they advertise this clearly as “Not a Moving Picture.”
Finally, through this research project, I was able to see a fascinating transition in newspaper advertising. At the turn of the century, newspapers were dense with text; images were infrequent. Opera house advertisements in its first decade were also mostly text, often incorporated in the body of the paper as an article. By the late 1910’s, advertising was more sophisticated: ads were in blocks with pictures (sometimes full-page), and often included cast numbers, expenses, and reviews to entice patrons. Below, view an example of an early advertisement from 1893 and another from 1918.
For more advertisements and articles concerning the opera house, visit our Facebook album here. For additional information on the Bennington Opera House’s history, I highly recommend Ted Bird’s article, “The Bennington Opera House and General Stark Theater, 1892-1959: Victorian elegance, while it lasted,” published in the Walloomsack Review, Bennington, Vt., 2012.
Written by Karyn Norwood, Digital Support Specialist, Vermont Digital Newspaper Project
Bennington Museum, particularly Callie Stewart and Tyler Resch, for additional research materials and photographs.
UVM Catalog/Metadata Specialists Michael Breiner, Mary VanBuren-Swasey, and Jake Barickman for additional microfilm research.
Erenst Anip, Birdie MacLennan, and Prue Doherty for editing assistance.
We now have over 40,000 pages of freely accessible, keyword searchable Vermont newspapers available online here. We have another 53,000 pages currently in process that will become available in the coming months. We are adding these to the now more than 4 million pages available on the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America website. The Rutland Herald for 1836-1854, Burlington Free Press for 1836-1920, the Vermont Farmer for 1872-1877, and the Vermont Phoenix from Brattleboro for 1836-1873, and 1911-1912, are now all available.
We have a treasure trove of new titles in process, including the Vermont Phoenix from 1874-1910, and 1913-1922, and the Vermont Transcript of St. Albans 1864-1869, covering the 1864 St. Albans Raid, and the Fenian Raid of 1866–material missing from the currently available digitized material for St. Albans. Also coming soon are the Rutland Daily Globe from the 1870s, a paper described by a noted Vermont historian as the best in the state for the era, the Windham County Democrat 1837-1853, edited by women’s rights pioneer Clarina Nichols in the latter years, and the Watchman and State Journal from Montpelier for 1836-1920.
In the months following we will make available scans of the Middlebury Register from 1837-1922, the Spirit of the Age from Woodstock for 1840-1913, and we will digitize close to 10,000 pages of both the Bennington Banner and Caledonian Record title families. We are particularly pleased to be able to announce that we will be digitizing the Bennington Banner and Caledonian Record, because we recently received permission from Library of Congress and The National Endowment for the Humanities to do this additional work. This means that we will digitize close to an additional 30,000 pages of historic Vermont newspapers this year without requiring any additional funds.
Above: some quick scans of our newly added titles. The final scans will be higher resolution and won’t have lines.