Alexander County

1940 It Happened in Cairo

Arranged for Publication by Anne West 1940

Chapter VI


Maud was an inveterate theatre-goer. Perhaps no one in all Cairo was so excited and pleased as she when the Opera House opened its handsome new doors to the public. In her Journal she records going to the opening performance on December 15, 1881. The Daily Bulletin for that date carried the following ad, followed the next day by a long account of the opening and a description of the Opera House.

Cairo Opera House
Opening Attraction
December 15, 1881
Fay Templeton & Company in
The Mascotte
Admission 25-50-75-$1.00
Doors Open at 7:00
Performance Commences at 7:45

Daily Bulletin, Dec. 16, 1881.

 The Mascotte, as produced by the Fay Templeton Company at the Opera House last night will certainly become one of the most popular plays in the country, and will place Miss Fay's name among the brightest stars in the firmament of the American stage. Miss Fay was, of course, the principal attraction upon the stage."

Unlike the Bulletin's prediction in 1879 about Elmer being successful, it was just about 100% right regarding Miss Fay. When Fay Templeton appeared at the opening of the Cairo Opera House she was just sixteen years of age. She was the toast of the gay 90's as a singing and acting star in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Later she was soubrette for Weber and Fields, popularizing the song, Rosey, You are My Posey. Her crowning engagement was with George M. Cohan, as "Mary" in "45 Minutes from Broadway," singing the well remembered Mary Is a Grand Old Name. Fay Templeton passed away on October 3, 1939, at the age of 74, one of the most beloved stars of the American stage.

On April 9, 1882, the Opera House ran the following ad in the Bulletin.

Cairo Opera House
2 Nights - Mon. and Tues.
April 10-11
Oliver Doud Byron
Supported by the Charming Actress
Miss Kate Byron
"Across the Continent"
"10,000 Miles Away"
333 - Laughs in Each Play- 333

Maud writes of attending "Across the Continent" with Elmer. No doubt her sentiments were similar to those expressed in the Bulletin on April 12.

The plays rendered here by the Doud Byron Combination have all the elements of popularity. They abound in striking situations and pert sayings pregnant with wit of the street and the prairie, and have all the charm of Dime Novel personified and realized.

The many admirers that Maud had, combined with her love of the theatre, must have led her to attend most of the big attractions that came to town. Although she tells of many which she saw, she no doubt was an appreciative on-looker at many more that found no listing in her diary as published. Among the attractions that appeared at the Opera House during the time she must have been a habitual playgoer were these once-heralded offerings: Minnie Maddern in "Foggs Ferry"; Stephens Comic Opera Company presenting "The Jolly Bachelors"; Katie Putnam in "The Little Detective." On January 30, 1883, M. B. Curtis appeared in "Sam'l of Posen" as played 200 nights in New York. The Bulletin had this to say on January 31, "The Opera House was packed last night. Every seat was taken upstairs and downstairs, and a number were compelled to stand in the 'promenade' throughout the performance. The whole play and every part of it was strongly given." Later there appeared Pete Baker in "Chris and Lena"; Milton and Dollie Nobles in "From Sire to Son"; Thomas Jefferson in "Rip Van Winkle"; Lewis Morrison in "Faust," with the Marvelous Brocken Scene, the Pinnacle of Stagecraft; James O'Neill in "The Count of Monte Cristo"; Newton Beers in "Enoch Arden"; Roland Reed in "The Woman Hater"; Bonnie Kate Castleton in "A Paper Doll"; Robert Downing in "Count Claudio"; Sam T. Jacks Company presenting Lily Clays in "Beauty in Dreamland" and "The Devil's Frolic." The prices were always 25c-50c-75c, except for the week's engagement of The Little Sunbeam, Eunice Goodrich, when prices were 10c-20c-30c. And as a souvenir of the Goodrich engagement three gold watches were given away to the persons holding the lucky numbers - one at Wednesday matinee, one at Saturday matinee, and one on Saturday night. The Holden Comedy Company were also there for one week in 1890 at 10c-20c-30c. On September 11, 1882, Sells Bros. Circus exhibited in Cairo, and was followed on September 30 by the Four Paw Circus. On Saturday, June 30, 1888, the John Robinson Circus made its appearance. Gilmore's Band appeared at the Opera House in May, 1888, and the prices were $1.00 and $1.25.

Maud's love of footlights and greasepaint was too strong to let her remain always in front of the stage. She was perhaps Cairo's favorite amateur in the 1880's and 90's. Certainly there was always a role waiting for her in the home talent plays.

On July 1, 1883, she gives quite some space to the description of her costume in an amateur play at the Opera House, and in the Bulletin of June 27 is the following account of this performance.


Last night the much talked of little society play of the above title was presented at the Opera House by members of the Ideal League.

Cast of Characters
Chevoit Hill . . . George Parsons
Mr. Symperson . . . W. F. Korsmeyer
Angus McGillcuddy . . . G. T. Carnes
Major McGillcuddy . . . E. Y. Crowell
Belinda . . . Adele Gordon
Minnie . . . Maud Rittenhouse
Mrs. Macfarlane . . . Effie Coleman
Parker . . . Bessie Korsmeyer
Attendants, Etc., by members of the League

Misses Gordon, Rittenhouse and Howard possess much dramatic talent. A calliope song by the former was one of the unusual gems of the performance. Miss Rittenhouse displayed enough coolness and presence of mind for half a dozen, and her delivery and movements betoken a complete sinking of self in the character she took.

On Thursday, April 19, 1894, at midnight, Maud writes of the howling success of "Priscilla," and the following account of the performance is from a Cairo paper of the next day.

"Priscilla" Presented by Home Talent
To a Large and Fashionable Audience
At the Opera House Last Night

Cairo amateurs are achieving fame in the theatre. They take rank with many professionals on the operatic stage. This is especially true of members of the Cairo Opera Company. The character of "Priscilla" was assigned to Miss Pearl Lancaster, and right royally did she sustain it. She has fine stage presence and is perfectly at ease and self-possessed before the footlights. Her voice was under perfect control and all her songs were given with the ease of a finished musician. Her acting could scarcely be improved upon, "Resignation" was a charmingly successful character, assumed by Miss Maud Rittenhouse, who scored a decided triumph. She is one of Cairo's most accomplished young ladies and made more out of the middle-aged spinister's part than almost anyone could have done. Her make-up was perfect. Her acting and her singing were as perfect as her make-up. The song in which "Hatebad" proposed and was accepted was so enthusiastically applauded that it had to be repeated, and even then there were symptoms of a second encore, which was checked by the appearance of the others in whom the audience was interested.

On February 16, 1895, Maud writes of her taking part in "Damon and Pythias" at the Opera House. She gives a more detailed account of the performance than the weekly Citizen of February 21, 1895, which simply says:

The drama "Damon and Pythias" was presented at the Opera House last Friday evening by local talent under the direction of Lawrence McCarty and pleased a large audience. The entertainment was given under the auspices of the K. of P., and the proceeds, quite a large sum, will be given to charity.

Mr. McCarty took the leading role Damon. David S. Lansden made a good Pythias. His experience in amateur theatricals has given him an easy-bearing manner on the stage. Miss Maud Rittenhouse as Hermion, wife of Damon, was splendid. Every move, every gesture and facial expression convinced the audience that she had completely put on the character she represented. Miss Pearl Lancaster made a most beautiful bride of Pythias and sustained her part well . . .

Cairo people who recall both these presentations and Maud herself like to make mention of the delight she seemed to experience in driving past the Theatre Comique of an evening when the band was outside giving its free pre-performance concert. Often, it is claimed, she used to make her horse, or the horse of her escort who drove, prance to the beat of the music. The Comique was a theatre for men only !

The Opera House itself still stands on Commercial Avenue, a dingy-looking shell of its former magnificence. It is used as a moving picture house for the negro population.

There's a favorite little story which crops out in Cairo conversation now and then and has its locale at the old Opera House. It seems that one Gus Botto, a saloon keeper of the early days, found it expedient one night to remove six barrels of whisky from one of his saloons (some argue it was the old "Bucket of Blood," which stood on stilts near the edge of town) and hide them. Immediately he thought of the Opera House. Whether he stored them in the house itself or in some upstairs room in the same building is uncertain. But this much is known. He returned to the "old country" and was gone for 18 or 20 years. When he came back to Cairo he had completely forgotten about the whisky. But some of his friends hadn't. He was reminded of the episode. And together, he and Jacob Zimmerman went to investigate. They found the barrels still there, with the content evaporated to one-fourth of its former amount in each barrel. Botto bottled it and passed it out to his friends, who swore that more potently delicious beverage was never concocted, and that a taste would send a tingle to the toes.

While actors and actresses were trodding the boards of Cairo's theatres, their less famous sisters and brothers of the acting profession were presenting lusty melodramas on the showboats which pulled up at the levee. One of the first showboats on the rivers visited Cairo on October 15, 1880. It was Dan Rice's Floating Opera House and Museum on the Mammoth Steamer Champion No. 9.

The last of the famous old-time river showboats, French's New Sensation, a one-time palatial floating showhouse that attracted thousands up and down the waterfronts, had been on the Marine Ways at Mound City (just north on the river from Cairo) for some time when a near tornado struck Southern Illinois several years ago and smashed the showboat to pieces. Its demolition wrote "finis" to one of the most colorful, dramatic chapters in the history of the rivers.

Maud does not record the coming and going of the showboats. Evidently they were beneath her level of dramatic appreciation - not having undergone revival then at the hands of sophisticates, as they have in recent years.

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Extracted 25 Aug 2018 by Norma Hass from It Happened in Cairo, arranged by Anne West, published in 1940.

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