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Union Hall and Opera House

1866–1900


West side of Portage St. (2nd floor), south of E. Main St. (now E. Michigan Ave.).

Built as “Union Hall” and run as an opera house from 1866 to 1900. Renovated and renamed “Opera House” in 1881 in competition with the Academy of Music. Theater torn out and building converted to offices in 1900.

Portage Street looking south, c.1904. Former Opera House entrance circled on right (closed 1900). Private collection.

Union Hall (1866-1881)

Operated as Union Hall until June 1881. Theater portion (“the Johnson half”) of the property sold on June 22, 1881, to Henry Kimberly of West Troy, New York, to satisfy a mortgage.

“Work will be commenced at once on Union hall. It will be entirely remodeled and finished in modern style, the stage enlarged, new scenery and stage equipments added, and a ladies retiring room or parlor. It will be seated with opera chairs, properly ventilated and put in first class condition for the comfort of our people and for the creditable presentation of the leading attractions booked for the coming season.”

Kalamazoo Gazette, July 15, 1881

Opera House (1881-1889)

Renovation work began in July under the supervision of Chicago architect J.M. Wood, who was responsible for work on opera houses in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. Reopened as the Opera House in September 1881.

Grand Opera House (1889-1900)

Theatrical manager Walter A. Robinson and local streetcar company manager Arthur Ellithorpe leased the Opera House in February 1889 renamed it “Grand Opera House.” In 1895, A.L. Witherel leased the Grand Opera House and reopened it as “a moral and refined family resort” (Gazette) called the Wonderland Family Theater, but his operation only lasted a few weeks. The Grand Opera House reopened in October under management of W.G. Bush and Al Duray.

After a final series of performances by Irving French and His Jolly Company, the theater property was sold at public auction in May 1900. The theater was torn out and the building was converted to offices.

“The old building has had a checkered career. It was at one time the banner amusement resort of the state, and in the good old days when an attraction was billed it would draw from all sections of the county. Within its historic walls the voices of the world’s greatest actors have been heard. Nearly all of the old school actresses have also appeared there. For a long time the theatre catered to the very cream of the best offerings, which were always well patronized by the theatre-going people of the then large village. Of late the old structure has gone into a decline, and today it is only a shadow of its former beauty.”

Kalamazoo Morning Gazette, March 20, 1900

Portage Street South of Michigan Avenue, c.1960. John Todd Photographic Collection, Portage District Library.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo County, Michigan, July 1887 (Library of Congress).
Portage at Main, c.1880s. Note Opera House banner above entrance on the left. Kalamazoo Public Library photo.

Sources

Information originally compiled in 1995 by J.P. Jenks. Additional information was later added by library staff. Information compiled from Kalamazoo City Directory listings, details obtained in researching newspaper reports published at the time by the Kalamazoo Gazette and Kalamazoo Telegraph Press, Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, Kalamazoo County Warranty Deeds and numerous other sources. Updated March 2019.


Additional Resources

Books

A History of Theater in Kalamazoo

Pixley, Jorge V., 1958
H 792 P694

Theater in Kalamazoo from 1860–1890

Johns, Marion, 1955
H 792 J65


Articles

“News Items.”
Kalamazoo Gazette, June 24, 1881, p.4.

“Local News.”
Kalamazoo Gazette, July 15, 1881, p.4.

“The Entertainers. The Opera House Management Passes Into New Hands.”
Kalamazoo Gazette, February 3, 1889, p.4.

“Amusements.”
Kalamazoo Gazette, February 23, 1895, p.1.

“Amusements.”
Kalamazoo Gazette, March 7, 1895, p.1.

“Theatrical Syndicate May Purchase Grand Opera House and Remodel It.”
Kalamazoo Morning Gazette, March 20, 1900, p.8.


Local History Room Files

Subject File: Theater

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