Grand Opera House

Van Buren Avenue at 6th Street,
Charleston, IL 61920

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The Grand Opera House was built in 1903, when it was known as the Charleston Opera House. The builders were J. A. Parker, George Muchmore and T.G. Chambers at an estimated cost of $25,000 and it was dedicated on August 12, 1903. Later the theatre was taken over by George Chambers, and later still was purchased by J. A. Parker, one of the builders, but within a few months Parker sold the theatre to J. E. Osborne of Decatur. It was destroyed by a spectacular blaze in 1914.

Contributed by Lou Rugani

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LouRugani on September 19, 2014 at 3:25 pm

(Dec. 14, 1914, Charleston Daily Courier) The Grand Opera House was destroyed, telephone, light and street car service was crippled, and residences were endangered by fire which started in the theatre last night. Damage is estimated at $25,000 covered partially in the case of the theatre, by insurance.

Little is known regarding the origin of the fire. Two theories are advanced, one blaming defective wiring and the other a discarded cigar or cigarette.
                  Owing to the fact that the fire was not discovered until it had gained great headway, the firemen were unable to cope with the flames within the theatre and were forced to devote their attention to buildings in the vicinity which threatened numerous times to burst into flames because of the intense heat thrown out by the burning structure.

Difficulty was added to the work of the firemen by a stiff breeze from the northwest, which fanned the conflagration into fury and carried burning brands through the air for nearly a block. Many of these brands fell on the roofs of nearby houses, and but for the coat of snow would have started other fires.

Fire was discovered by persons living near the theatre about 9:10 o'clock. At that time flames were shooting from the south end of the scenery loft and from the windows in the rear of the theatre. Within ten minutes the whole interior of the building was a seething furnace, so quickly did the fire spread. Firemen arriving found their entrance to the theatre barred by tongues of flame. They were able to save a desk, a typewriter and papers.
                  Working in the intense cold in water-soaked clothing, the firemen remained near the blazing theatre until 2:30 o'clock this morning. At that time the ruins were still smouldering.
                  After the fire had practically gutted the theatre, the brick walls at the rear and side began to fall inward. The rear wall was the first to go. It carried with it a portion of the north wall, and nearly all of the south wall. Workmen this morning finished the work of the fire by pulling down the front wall and what remained of the north and south walls.
                  Heat thrown off by the blazing theatre building melted two telephone cables in front, thus cutting off 500 telephones. When the cable fell it swung against a pole bearing electric wires and the guy wire to the street car trolley wire. To reduce danger from live wires, the current in the electric was cut off, and the wires were cut near the corner of Van Buren and Sixth Streets.
                  Light from the big blaze was seen by farmers living three miles from Charleston. One of these said that the light was bright as that of the moon. He declared it to nearly approximate daylight. Those who did not learn of the fire by the sounding of the alarm bell were in many instances informed of it by the great light.
                  News of the fire reached Mattoon soon after the breaking out of the flames, and nearly 100 persons from that city came to Charleston on interurban cars to see the blaze.

The telephone exchange was hit hard by the fire. As soon as the alarm was sounded, calls began to come in to the exchange by the hundred. Although the operators worked at top speed for over two hours, they were scarcely able to give service at all. It is estimated that 1,600 connections were made immediately after the breaking out of the fire. Weather conditions added to the difficulties of the exchange.

Announcement was made this morning by H. E. Hayworth, local manager for the Central Illinois Public Service Company, that the loss of his company would be in the neighborhood of $500. A force of workmen repaired the damage done to the wires of the public service corporation today, and the current was turned on this afternoon.
                  The work of the telephone company will not be so quickly done. Hill Moss, local manager for the Coles County Telephone and Telegraph Company, said this morning that he did not expect to have repairs made before Friday. New cables have been ordered from St. Louis. According to Mr. Moss, 275 telephones were put out of commission by the melting of the cables. The loss to his company, he said, was in the neighborhood of $800.00.
                  No figures on the amount of insurance carried on the Grand Opera House could be obtained today because of failure to get into communication with J. E. Osborne of Decatur, owner of the theatre. William Quayle Setliffe, manager of the playhouse, said today that he did not feel at liberty to state the amount of insurance carried, although he admitted he knew the figure.
                  It is expected that the owner of the theatre will arrive in Charleston tomorrow to be present when adjustment of his claim is taken up by the insurance companies.
                  Because of the fire, seven dates for shows will be canceled by Manager Setliffe. Two of these dates were for this week, "The Girl and the Tramp," and the Belgian war pictures. The latter will be given in the Moose hall in the Richter building, while the former company will be notified of the disaster and instructed not to come to Charleston.

Manager Setliffe said today that he had no definite plans for himself in the future, but that he expected to remain in Charleston. He denied rumors to the effect that the plans were already underway for the construction of another playhouse.

An investigation of the circumstances surrounding the origin of the fire is being made by Oakley Hopkins, chief of the fire department. Information has reached the Chief which indicates that someone was in the theatre when the blaze broke out, he said today. The Chief would not state what he believed started the fire.
                  The Grand Opera House was built in 1903, when it was known as the Charleston Opera House. The builders were J. A. Parker, George Muchmore and T.G. Chambers. The dedication of the playhouse was on August 12, 1903. the estimated cost of the structure was $25,000.
                  Later the theatre was taken over by George Chambers, and later still was purchased by J. A. Parker, one of the builders. Within a few months of purchasing, Mr. Parker sold the theatre to J.E. Osborne of Decatur, the present owner. The last sale was made about four years ago.
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