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Monday, May 2, 2016

Opera House still provides entertainment

Monday, March 29, 2010

Putnam County Opera House
GREENCASTLE -- Around Putnam County, when the name of the Opera House is mentioned, most people know where it is. Many know it today as the home of a dance studio or a pregnancy center, but those who have lived here longer recall it as a place where memories were made.

Putnam County's Opera House from 1875 to 1945 served the community as the home of many public performances from churches, schools to movies. Designed for live theater, the Opera House also served as the Granada movie theater.

Following the devastating downtown fires of 1874 and 1875 when most of the south and east sides of courthouse square were destroyed, the town determined to rebuild with buildings of stone several stories high.

To improve the looks of the west side of the square, a small log hotel and tavern built in the 1830s and known as the Bell Tavern and later used as the post office was torn down to make way for the grand new Opera House.

Edward Hanneman, a baker and grocer, decided to build a three-story stone building in 1875. The bottom floors would hold his grocery and an auditorium on the third floor would be a grand building built for $25,000.

The floor of the auditorium was made of fine woods, there was a stage and a balcony made with a Spanish motif. It could hold 850 people.

Unfortunately, Hanneman couldn't make a go of the building, perhaps partly because three feet of the stage was built on the property of the jail and Hanneman had to purchase the land.

The Opera House became the property of the Mercantile Trust Company of New York, which leased it to William Blake and his son George. They held the building and managed it until 1912, when druggist Alonzo Cook bought the building.

Cook remodeled it. Fifteen years later, it was remodeled again and turned into the Granada movie theater. It was leased to a Bloomington family that ran the Voncastle Theater in that town.

According to an essay in "Our Past, Their Present" by DePauw professor emeritus John Baughman, "Before becoming a movie theater after 1912, the Opera House was the scene of many traveling shows.

The author said productions included "Uncle Tom's Cabin," "Ten Nights in a Bar Room," "H.M.S. Pinafore," "The Mikado" and "Hamlet" as well as minstrel shows, ventriloquists and hypnotists.

The Buffalo Bill show even played there in 1879, and John L. Sullivan and Jim Corbett gave a boxing exhibition.

From formal balls to roller skating and basketball games, the old building was a vibrant piece of the county's history.

The first movie was shown there in 1907 before it officially became the Granada Theater.

During World War II, movie theaters hosted newsreels and war bond drives, attracting patriotic and news-hungry Americans by the millions -- 85 million each week. Another theater called the Voncastle opened in Greencastle, as did a third theater called the Chateau.

"I had my first kiss there in the balcony of that theater," recalled Angie Coridan. "I was a freshman at DePauw and the Granada was a popular spot for us to go."

Twenty years later, her daughter Cindy sat in the same balcony where her mother had her first kiss and watched "Home of the Brave."

Cinemas began to see a decline in the late '40s and '50s, mostly because of television. Between 1947 and 1957, 90 percent of American households acquired a TV.

After the WWII, the movie house closed. It was remodeled and all but the outside fašade was destroyed in a 1985 downtown fire.

The Opera House was saved by the Heritage Preservation Society, which took on the project of restoring the fašade. It is currently occupied by Dance Workshop, owned and operated by Tara Gardner, the Putnam County Youth Development Center office and Care Net Pregnancy Center.

Today the laughter and tap, tap, tap of small feet fill the air in the building as hundreds of little girls dance their way through practices and recitals.

One local resident recalled sitting up on the third floor in the quiet of an evening.

"I could close my eyes and hear the sounds of years of entertainment from Hamlet to the roar of war planes in old movies, to the smell of popcorn to the laughter of dancing couples. It was a great feeling," he said.

The Opera House is located at 10-12 Jackson Street in downtown Greencastle.

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