Tillsonburg’s Opera House was ‘state of the art’

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A Tillsonburger recently asked where our Opera Hall was located and reminded me of a quest I have not yet achieved.

This article will answer the ‘where,’ but to fulfil my quest I require the help of collectors of our town history and descendants of families that lived in town from 1898-1979 to check their attics and closets for photos of the interior of our long-gone Opera House, which was housed upstairs in the Town Hall.

Built in 1897-98 for roughly $12,000, our Town Hall was very unique compared to most municipal buildings of the times. It was designed by Mark Lightheart Buffy to be not only beautiful but include state-of-art amenities.

The April 1, 1898, Tillsonburg Observer reported: “New Opera House (opened to the people and found to be a commodious, cheery and well-equipped hall). Let us go up the broad stairs of the main entrance and, passing through the big front doors, here at either side of the hall are wide staircases leading to a landing where doors admit the public to the 4 ft. stairs leading to the auditorium of the entertainment hall, which seats 650 people. The view that bursts upon the eye at the top of either flight of steps is a fine one. The many windows and very high ceiling, from which hang clusters of electric lights add to the general air of expansiveness which is further enhanced by the roomy stage and the raised terraces of the floor that give the occupants of all the opera chairs an equally advantageous view.”


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White walls, crimson draperies, cherry-stained seats, ornamental gallery railings, and a concave ceiling adorned with ornamental tracery by the painter’s brush.

And electricity! Evidently not all the lighting was electrified as a lot of asbestos was used to fireproof the floor. A gable window was designed to allow the cast and crew a fire exit and a way to haul up ‘baggage’ to that level. Installing electricity would be like getting fully computerized lights and equipment today!

Mr. Trato, an artist from Chicago who had been working in Simcoe, was hired to paint the stage scenery for the new town hall. There were seven scenes, including the drop curtain. Seven! At Theatre Tillsonburg we only have three!

They had a balcony and special comfortable, opera chairs! Seats for the level part of the floor, the first two rows of the first rise and the front gallery (balcony) row were furnished for $1.15 a chair, the remainder of the hall at 43 cents a chair, and the rest of the gallery at 20 cents a chair. Seating costs were $600.

Because of the terraces (risers) for the audience, the stage would not have needed to be raked (slanted).

Back then it would be like having a technically modern, beautiful, professional theatre here in Tillsonburg. Yes, after decades of being a theatre techie, I am jealous! I wonder if they could fly drops or rolled them like we do?

We need to find a photo of the Opera House interior, the auditorium artwork and wonders of that stage. Please, help us find a photo. If you call me 519-842-9416 you would be my new best friend!

Brick crumbling, bell and ironwork removed, our Town Hall was demolished in 1979. Today the municipal offices are in The Town Centre mall that stands in its stead. We do have The Otter Valley Playhouse, which is a wonderful small theatre for an amateur group, but I can dream, can’t I?

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