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Woods Opera House (1886-1902) - Bay City
Bay City's first building devoted to theater.
Southeast corner of Washington Ave. & Sixth St.
  • by Marvin Kusmierz (February 2003)
  • When the Woods Opera House opened it doors in 1886, it was first building ever erected in Bay City specifically for use as a theater. All previous theaters were housed in a portion of a building built for other purposes.

    The Woods Opera House came into existence after the Westover Opera House was destroyed by fire in January, 1886. That theater was located in William Westover's business block on the southwest corner of Washington and Center avenues, and it utilized the third of fourth floors of that building. When the Westover Opera House opened in 1869, it was consider the finiest theater facilities north of Detroit.

    Woods Opera Theater about 1890.
    abt. 1890: Woods Opera House
    (conical tower)

    Most of the early theaters in Bay City's history were housed in hotels. The Globe House which was owned by Sidney Campbell was the first hotel in Lower Saginaw (Bay City) It was located on the corner of Water and Fifth. A.N. Rouech bought the Globe Hotel and in 1865, opened the community's first "fixed" theater location in upper level of the building. When James Fraser built the Fraser House on the southeast corner of Water and Center, it included a ballroom/theater on the upper level with a private entrance. The Westover Opera House when it opened in 1869, was the closest thing to a regular theater facilities that Bay Citians had until the Woods Opera House replace it a year later.

    Westover block sketch
    Westover Block

    In 1885, Westover put in place plans to renovate the opera house which was considered unsafe and badly in need of repairs. J.M. Wood was hired to oversee the renovation project. He did the designed work when the Westover block was built. And, Westover's manager, John Buckley, had made arrangements with the Washington Avenue Rink where a temporary state was erected so performance could be continued. However, the attendence at the temporary location was poor.

    Westover didn't start the renovation project right away -- instead, he approached the city for financial assistance to help defray the high costs involved. He was requested that the city donate $15,000 to the project's costs. The city wasn't interested coughing up money from the funds, but did organize a group to collect money from the community at large for this purpose. What followed is best described in a thesis (see "Source" below) written by Raymond J. Lewandowski in 1962,

    "At this point, in the effort to collect funds, the bonsus committee found itself unable to move in any direction. They were not able to raise the necessary funds, and the citizens of Bay City did not seem eager to help them out of this situation. Mr. Wood realizing what the situation was, decided to take the matter into his own hands and ease the problem by paying for a public theatre our of his own pocket. He chose to build a completely new theater in a new location. The newspaper covered this story in an article as follows:
    Bay City Tribune - January 6, 1885

    Mr. Wood said this morning: "You can state that work on the new Bay City opera house will commence in about two weeks, and that I expect to open it September 20 with Edwin Booth. The location is on the corner of Washington and Sixth streets. There will be a three story building in front, with stores and offices on each side of the main entrance and a large hall or assembly room on the third floor. The opera house will be the finest in the state with one large gallary, a fire wall and iron drop curtain between the stage and auditiorium, and a seating capacity of 1,200. The dome will be 48 feet high; the stage the largest and best equipped in Michigan. I shall own the building myself, and lease it to some capable manager.

    "In keeping with this idea, Mr. Wood wrote a letter to the city which appeared in The Tribune making the following proposition:

    Bay City Tribune - January 7, 1885

    I will erect and furnish complete ready for the opening entertainment an opera house in accordance with plans, specifications and detail drawings, to be approved by you and attached to the contract for the payment to me of bonus. Said opera house is to seat at least 1,200. Stage floor to be 8 inches above sidewalk level. The first floor and balcony to be seated with A.H. Andrews and Co.'s opera chairs, same as in academy of music, East Saginaw, Michigan. The state will be larger than the academy stage and will be thoroughly equipped with scenery and stage machinery. It will be heated by steam and will be detached with four exits on sides of auditorium. The highest seating level will be 32 feet above sidewalk.

    The building will be thoroughly constructed and in finish I guarantee more artistic effects than can be found in any opera house in the state. The house will be thoroughly practical and will be a model of completeness and elegance in every respect. In its characteristic features it will surpass anything in the state, as in design it will be Moresque and susceptible to the richest effects. The stage will be separated from the auditorium by a fire wall running through the roof.

    It will be furnished in keeping with its finish and decorations. The first floor and balcony carpeted with body Brussels carpet and the opening curtains hung with handsome portieres and boxes draped with rich materials, silk plushes or Turcomans, or Moorish Indo Velours.
    "Mr. Wood stated that he would build this opera house in Bay City under a specified arrangement: the citizens of the community where to contribute fifteen thousand dollars to the project. This money was to be in the
    form of notes payable when the walls of the building are completed and roof is on; 66 2/3 per cent of said notes to be delivered to me on execution of contract, the balance to be held by your committee and collected at maturity and the money held and paid to me on completion and opening of opera house.

    Said building is to be located on a prominent street and is to be not less than 65 feet wide and 120 feet deep.

    Things changed dramatically a few weeks later. On the bitter cold Sunday of January 17, 1886, the Westover block caught on fire. Fire alarms rang out around 9:45 p.m., a short time later the roof of the Westover fell in, the building and the opera house it contained was a total loss. (See {Westover Block History} for an article on this fire.)

    Making matters worse was that Westover had insurance of only $28,000, and the loss was estimated at $80,000. The propects seemed bleak that he would be able to erect another building with an opera house anytime soon. The only option left was Mr. Wood's proposal. A situation that expedited a prompt acceptance of his proposal.

    Inaugural Performance at the Woods Opera House

    On September 17, 1886 the Woods Opera House opened for its first performance. It was a beautiful theater inside and out. There was no mistaking this was a theater building. It's exterior had the enchanting look of a castle securing the corner of Washington and Sixth. An attractive conical tower on the corner of the building rose high above the roof line that was surround by a decorative wall extending the facing style of the building's walls.

    Inside, three levels comprised the theater's state and auditorium -- the main floor, a second level balcony and a third level gallary of seat. Up to 1,535 spectators could be seated at a given performance. As promised by Mr. Wood, the stage was the best to be found in Michigan, it had three elaborate drop curtains and it was capable of handling upto 30 different scene changes. The decorative walls and the general color scheme was an elegant display of old gold, terra cotta and blue.

    The main entrance was on Washington and on Sixth Street side of the building was a stage entrance for the performers. This entrance became a popular spot for kids to hang out and watch the performers as the arrived or left the building.

    The Bay City Tribune ran an article the day after the opening, the sub-headline read,

    "Honest Emma Abbott and Her Brilliant Company in 'Mignon' -- The Audience Agreeably Astonstonish -- A Memorable Occassion."

    1886 inauguration  ad.
    Ad Sep 18, 1886, Bay City Tribune

    The article goes on to describe the opening event and performance. It includes the names of many of the prominent individuals that were in attendance. The following is a list of the theater's staff:

    • Managers: Clay, Powers, and Buckley
    • Treasurer: W.D. Richardson
    • Asst. treasurers: F.W. Buckley, B. Wittermore
    • Chief usher: Henry A. Lewis
    • Asst. ushers: A.R. Baker, John Crawford, D. Jackson, Harry Garland, Lew Waters, Chas. Rose, Will Keith and Adloph Osier.
    • Stage carpenter: Fred Walters
    • Janitor and property man: Will Merithew
    See {Writings/Woods Opera House Opening} for full article.

    Three days after Emma Abbott's opening performing Edwin Booth who took center stage to the delight of another packed audience.

    Some years later, an addition was constructed on the east side of the building along Adams Street. It's purpose was offer space for leasing and provide the opera house with an additional source of income. The addition offered two full levels and a basement. The Bay City Library and city government both leased space here at the same time. The library at this time didn't have it's own building (It's first "permanent building" was the Central Library on "Center Avenue" which didn't opened until 1922.). City government needed space to ease the over crowning at the old City Hall on Saginaw Street until the new City Hall building on Washington Avenue which wasn't completed until 1897. The mayor's office was located in the basement of the opera house during that period.

  • (See {Groups/Library System/Opera House} for history.)

    In Les Arndt's book (see "Sources" below), he quotes a newspaper article that provides a sense of theater at that time,

    "During its lifetime this opera house saw almost every kind of performance -- from outstanding drama, operettas, vaudeville, home talent productions to high school graduation exercises.

    "Chugging railroad trains hauled in some of the greatest shows touring the country. As an example of what was playing here, the Bay City Daily Tribune on Nov. 30, 1890, noted:
    The special car transporting the scenery and baggage of Mr. J.H. Wallick's Cattle King Company, which is to exhibit at the Opera House on December 4, is surely worthy of more than passing notice.

    The car was made for Mr. Wallick by the Pennsylvania Railroad at a cost of $5,000, exclusive of the beautiful decorations, which cost nearly $1,000 more. It is 70 feet long, and inside has stalls for the trained horses used by Wallick in his shows, also compartments for baggage, secenery, etc. So convenient are the stalls for the Wallick horses that when not in use they fold up against the side of the car like leaves of a book.

    When in use the car's interior is transformed from a reception room into a palace stable. The exterior is handsomely decorated and lettered in gold bronze. On one side there is a life-size painting in oil of a marriage on horseback; for the other a similar painting of a duel on horseback. The car seems to be a palace on wheels."

    The End of a Glorious 16 Years.

    The life-span of the Woods Opera House was a short-lived. Like it's predecessor, the Westover Opera House, it was destroyed by fire. On August 29, 1902, "The Tide of Life" would be the opera house's last performance. A fire that evening leveled the building. The financial lost was estimated at $113,000, but it did come close to measuring up in importance to the dismay felt by the community in loosing this fine source of entertainment.

    This time there would be no hestitation -- work began immediately on the same spot. A new opera house with a new name, the Washington Theater, began entertaining audiences in 1903.

    Biography of John M. Wood, from "The Bay of San Francisco," Volume 1, 1892.

    J. M. Wood, although not a resident of San Francisco for many years, is one of the best know architects in this country. He is a native of New York city, born in 1841. His father, James E. Wood, a native of Maine, came to New York and for many years was a leading coal merchant and the head of the Union Coal Company for many years. He was a prominent Whig and a leader in the councils of the party. He was president of the Board of Aldermen of the city of New York, and held the office of United States Harbormaster. He died in 1864. His wife, a most estimable lady, was Miss Jane Dunning, a native of Scoharie county, New York, and survived him one year, dying in 1865.

    The subject of our sketch was reared and received his education in his native city. Soon after reaching his majority he went to Chicago and entered the office of one of the leading architects. Several years later he opened an office for himself, and for the past quarter of a century has been identified with the building interests of that city. He has given much attention to designing and erecting theaters, opera houses and concert halls throughout the United States. Among the temples of art designed and erected by him are the New California Theater; Grand Opera House, Los Angeles; , Portland; the Tacoma Theater; New Broadway Theater, Minneapolis; Blake Opera House, Racine, and Grand Opera House, Warsaw, Wisconsin; Rockford Opera House, and Grand Opera House, Danville, Illinois; Academy of Music, East Saginaw; Wood’s Opera House, Bay City; Academy of Music, Kalamazoo; Redmond’s Opera House, Grand Rapids; Academy of Music, Toronto, Canada; Academy of Music at Franklin, Oil City and Altoona, Pennsylvania; Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and many others, too numerous to mention. He is an enthusiast in this branch of his profession, and has devoted a great deal of time and study to the comfort, convenience, acoustic qualities and effect in the design and arrangements of opera houses, theaters and concert halls. His design and supervision in erecting the magnificent New California Theater in this city was through the endorsement and special recommendation of the most eminent artists in the profession, -- Booth, Barrett, Modjeska and others.

    It's surprising that Bay City didn't have a building devoted primarily to theater earlier, as the city grown rapidly since the big lumber boom era that had its beginning in the 1860s, and experienced it peak years during the decade of the 1880s. It may have been due to the theater in the Wolverton Block was quite satisfacory, with adequate seating and excellent accomodations.

  • Notes & Related Pages

    Woods Opera House

    Sketch Inside

    John J. Buckley and his partner Samuel G. Clay were contracted to build Woods Opera House. Buckley resided in Bay City, and was in the theatrical management business for 18 years. He died in 1890.
    {Westover Block History}

    Writings/Woods Opera
    1886: News on opening
    1902: News on fire.

    Buckley & Clay Co.
    People Referenced
    Abbot, Emma
    Arndy, Leslie
    Baker, A.R.
    Booth, Edwin
    Buckley, John M.
    Buckley, F.W.
    Campbell, Sidney
    Crawford, John
    Davidson, Albert E. (mgr)
    Dunning, Jane
    Fraser, James
    Garland, Harry
    Jackson, D.
    Keith, Will
    Lewandowski, Raymond J.
    Lewis, Henry J.
    Merithew, Will
    Osier, Adolph
    Richardson, W.D.
    Rose, Chas.
    Rouece, A.N.
    Wallick, J.H.
    Walters, Fred
    Waters, Lew
    Westover, William
    Whittermore, B.
    Wood, James E.
    Wood, John M.
    Subjects Referenced
    1st hotel
    1st theater
    Academy of music
    A.H. Andrews & Co.
    Bay City Library
    Cattle King Co.
    Central Library building.
    City Hall (old)
    City Hall (new)
    East Saginaw, MI
    Fraser House
    Globe House
    Lower Saginaw (Bay City)
    Mayor's office
    Washington Avenue Rink
    Westover block
    Westover Opera House
    Historical Tid-bits
    1897 Julius Cahn's Official Theatrical Guide
    Bay City - Pop., 28,000. Woods Opera House. A.E. Davidson, mgr., S.c., 1,100. Width prosc. opening, 32 ft. Hieght, 28 ft. Depth footlights to back wall, 40 ft. Curtain line to footlights, 6 ft. Bet. side walls, 60 ft. Bet. fly girders, 46 ft., Groves from stage, 20 ft. Sate to riggings loft, 60 ft. 4 grooves. Depth under stage, 8ft. 3 traps located 1 center, 2 each side. Grooves can be taken up flush with fly gallary. Theatre on ground floor. Fred Walter, stage carp. Pringing required, 7 stands, 35 3-sheets, 200 1-sheets, 100 1/2-sheets. Bills are posted by the house.
    Article Sources
    A Survey of Legitimate Theatre in Bay City from 1884-1902, (1962) thesis by Raymond J. Lewandowski.
    Bay City Tribune, September 18, 1886.
    Bay County Story -- From Footpaths to Freeways, (1982) book by Leslie Arndt.
    Bay City Library history, 1946, article by Isabele A. Ballou.
    Westover Building history article (Bay-Journal).
    Internet Resources

    Emma Abbott

    Book written in 1891 by Sadie E. Martin, "The Professional Career of Emma Abbott." [Google Books]
    John M. Wood
    -- Mr. Wood was born in 1841, at New York City. After completing his schooling, he moved to Chicago where he found employment in an architect office, latter opening his own architect business. [More]

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