Between 1890 and 1927 the Grand Opera House in Meridian, Mississippi, provided east Mississippi and west Alabama with varied entertainment, ranging from operas in a variety of languages to theatrical entertainment and minstrel shows. This long-closed opera house, with its High Victorian architectural style, re-opened in September 2006.
The Grand Opera House was the work of German-Jewish immigrants who settled in the city in the late 1800s when the railroads and the booming timber industry made Meridian a major commercial distribution center. Half brothers I. Marks and Levi Rothenberg opened a department store on Front Street adjacent to the railroad tracks. Prospering, they decided to operate an opera house for fun and profit, serving the thousands of traveling salesmen and other rail passengers spending the night in town.
In 1889 they hired a Swedish immigrant architect, G. M. Torgenson, who was then living in Meridian, to design a new store and an elegant opera house to be located a few blocks west of the original store. The architect created a store to serve as a monument to the “goddess of commerce.”
The brothers gambled big because shopping had never been a pleasurable experience for most Mississippians. The majority of the population lived as yeoman farmers or sharecroppers. Yeomen prided themselves on buying as little as possible from stores; sharecroppers had almost no cash to spend. One reporter wrote that the Marks-Rothenberg store, the exterior of which was designed in the Romanesque Revival style, reminded him of a theatre when he stood in the atrium’s center and looked up. The rows of floors awed the observer with a sense of wealth, prosperity, and well-being. For a century the store served to inspire shoppers to enjoy spending their money.
Business came first, but Marks and Rothenberg brought in the most renowned theatre design company in the United States to plan their opera house. The McElfatrick family built most of the theatres in New York and around the country. Their theatres were famous for good acoustics, sight lines, and adequate stage facilities. They finished the Grand Opera House in 1890. The first floor of the opera house was retail space. The theatre was one flight up on the second floor. The department store and the opera house would support one another. Employees would work in both — handling the stage sets, selling the tickets, and paying the performers as well as handling merchandise next door.
Grand Opera House
To inaugurate the Grand Opera House, the brothers chose two operas in their native language, German. A German-language company from New York performed Johann Strauss’s The Gypsy Baron the first night and Adolph Mueller’s The King’s Fool the second. The Grand Opera House shimmered with wallpaper embedded with glitter reflecting light from the massive “Sunburner” chandelier. Meridian’s elite turned out in formal dress, although almost none of them would understand a word of the operas. Those unable to purchase tickets watched carriages come and go with awe and excitement.
Such theatrical display was not the norm. Most of the plays presented at the Grand Opera House were melodramas — simple plays with easily recognizable villains and heroes, such as Davy Crockett: Be Sure You’re Right Then Go Ahead. Stock companies, groups of actors affiliated with a theatre, often presented a series of plays during a week’s run, all of them well-worn favorites. Audience promotion included drawing for door prizes, free “ladies tickets,” and at least once having the lucky winner of a drawing catch his pig on stage.
At other times the world’s leading actors and actresses graced the opera stage — Sarah Bernhardt appeared in La Tosca, for example. Mixed into the run-of-the-mill plays, the opera house played some of the latest, most daring material from Europe. Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts appeared in Meridian while it was still banned in London.
The Grand Opera House served the entire community. Farmers stood in the aisles on Saturdays for musicals and melodramas performed by stock companies who brought in sets and scenery by the railcar load. In one instance, a company staged a horse race on stage with treadmills and fast spinning scenery to provide the illusion of motion.
Throughout the life of the opera house, the most popular entertainment in the United States was blackface minstrel shows. White performers with blackened faces impersonated and satirized African Americans in variety shows full of jokes and songs. Gradually White theatre owners, including the Grand Opera House owners, began to book African-American companies. “Black Patti” (Matilda Sissieretta Jones), who possessed a strong, formally trained opera voice, headlined the most famous African-American companies that played the Grand Opera House. On those occasions, Black patrons, who normally sat in the “crow’s nest,” or segregated highest balcony, had their seating extended into the dress circle.
In the second year of the opera house’s operation, the Marks-Rothenberg brothers added a third three-story building to the side of the theatre that provided a large prop room and elevator to serve the stage. A wholesale business occupied the lower floors. Their gamble paid off. The department store lured in shoppers and introduced them to sophisticated goods while the opera house provided both entertainment and a cultural center for the city.
Soon competitors built other theatres. The Grand Opera House – called grand because it met the era’s most popular theatre guide’s definition for the term – was open only from October to April because, without fans to cool patrons, it was too hot to use in late spring and summer. The new competing theatres, however, installed fans and operated year-round. One theatre had a roof that retracted by electric motors so that the audience could be cooled by the night breeze.
As moving pictures became more popular and displaced melodramas, the opera house began to suffer from competition. Never above using new technology, the Grand Opera House had hosted Thomas Edison’s Vitascope, a moving picture machine, before the theatre was electrified in 1902. Gradually as “movies” displaced live entertainers, the opera house served both stage and screen entertainment. The Grand Opera House stressed quality, calling its movies “photodramas” and going for the blockbusters such as The Birth of a Nation. Because of the racist nature of D. W. Griffith’s classic movie, the Grand Opera House announced that one White man had purchased all of the usual Black seats in the opera house to deny Black people the “privilege” of seeing the show. Buying blocks of seats, whites came from cities as far away as Selma, Alabama, making Birth of a Nation a smash hit.
Finally the Grand Opera House installed fans with a cooling system to stay open throughout the year, but other movie houses had cut into their audience. In 1923 the Saenger movie chain rented the Grand Opera House on generous terms in order to obtain a monopoly in the Meridian movie business. The lease was for thirty years, but in 1927, the chain obtained a lease on the larger Temple theatre and movie house a block west of the opera house. The Saenger company wanted to gut the old Grand Opera House and turn it into an office building, but Levi Rothenberg refused. Because he had inserted a clause in the lease that the Grand Opera House could only be used as a theatre, the Saenger company abandoned the building and refused to pay their rent. Rothenberg sued and won, but Saenger appealed and kept the case tied up until Rothenberg’s death in 1937.
MSU Riley Center
Because possession of the Grand Opera House became a major point of contention in the court case, the theatre simply closed in 1927 and sat vacant for decades. All the while, it had a ghostly appearance as if the players had closed for the night expecting to return in the morning. Gradually the Marks-Rothenberg department store began to use it for storage, and pieces, such as the seats in the auditorium and the metal railing on the balcony, disappeared.
In 1965, anticipating the arrival of the interstate highway and potential visitors, the city held a contest to identify tourist attractions. The proposal to re-open the Grand Opera House won first prize. Then in 1999, after decades of under-funded efforts, Malcolm Portera, then president of Mississippi State University, coordinated efforts to restore the Grand Opera House and the Marks-Rothenberg department store. The Riley Foundation, a Meridian-based foundation chartered in 1998, jump-started the project in 2000 with a $10,000,000 donation. The city, county, and federal governments joined to complete the $25,000,000 convention and performing arts center, now called the MSU Riley Center for Education and Performing Arts.
Dennis J. Mitchell, Ph.D., is chair of the arts and sciences department, Mississippi State University, Meridian.
Abbott, Lynn and Doug Seroff. Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music 1889-1995. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002.
Mitchell, Dennis J. The Grand Opera House of Mississippi: A History. Starkville: Mississippi State University, 2006.
Mordden, Ethan. The American Theatre. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Shanks, Jack. Meridian: The Queen With a Past. Meridian: Brown Printing Company, 1995.
Grand Opera House Papers, Mitchell Library, Mississippi State University
Meridian Star. Mississippi Department of Archives and History, or Meridian Public Library
https://www.msurileycenter.com/ (accessed September 2021)