The Opera House and Its Place in History

By James L. McHugh and Dan Monahan

Did you know that The Opera House of Pacific has a unique connection with The St. Louis World’s Fair? The entire building was actually built from remaining material and ornamentals of the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. As the Fair closed, eleven train cars, loaded with materials salvaged from the Exposition, brought part of the history of the Fair to Pacific. Construction of the McHugh & Daily Mercantile Building had begun. The first floor was a general store. The second floor had apartments for the owners and their families. The third floor would become the famous Opera House of Pacific. In this brief article, it is hoped that several interesting questions will be answered: Why the Opera House was built? Who performed there? How was it almost lost to history?

The Opera House was built in Pacific to provide a location for entertainment and public events. The owners hoped to bring to Pacific, the culture of a growing and changing America as it entered the twentieth century. These changes manifested themselves in many ways, but none more than in the music, dress and public demeanor of the era. The Turn of the Century brought its new music called Rag Time. It brought to the public attention music composed and performed by artists like Missouri's own Scott Joplin whose music was featured at the Opera House. Ragtime superstar, Blind Boone, often performed at the Opera House to enthusiastic local audiences, and more entertainment yet to come.

Vaudeville entertainment had taken a firm hold in America as the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair opened its to new audiences. The Opera House was built for these new consumers. The Opera House of Pacific was opened on New Years Eve in 1908 with a new concert grand piano to showcase this new Rag Time music. The piano itself headlined the show bills as an attraction. Of course, the piano was used to accompany the many vaudeville performers on the stage over the years. (Special note: Harry Truman played this piano during his campaign for Senator in the 1930's. It is believed that he played “The Missouri Waltz.”). This century old piano has been completely restored and is currently on display in the Opera House. On special occasions, the piano is used for concerts in the Opera House.

The Pacific Opera House made a profit, not only from ticket sales, but also from the strong support of local businesses that advertised in the theater. Amazingly, these century old advertisements still exist! The stage proscenium has been fully restored to exactly the way it was in 1908. There are advertisements for long gone businesses all around the top of the stage opening. Even more amazingly, the original front curtain of the stage from 1908 has been completely preserved. For protection, it has been moved to the back of the stage. This extremely rare artifact from the vaudeville era has not been restored. Instead it has been preserved. All of the original advertisements that had been painted on it in 1908 are still clearly visible! Visitors to the Opera House are allowed to view the curtain up close when they attend events at the theater. With permission, some visitors are allowed to view the two back stage dressing rooms, which have not yet been restored. Instead, they are “preserved.” These tiny dressing rooms are a time capsule from 1908. The two rooms still have the signatures on the walls of the vaudeville performers - and others - who left their mark on history over a hundred years ago.

Vaudeville exploded across the nation. The huge Palace theaters were opened in New York and Chicago. However, it was traveling troupes that brought performers to small towns like Pacific. These entertainers “played the circuit.” This meant they would perform in a different theater every night as they traveled the country on the railroads. The Opera House was one of these stops. It is possible that the well-known barbershop quartet, The St. Louis Dixie Four, traveled by train to the Opera House to perform. Even today we can still hear the railroads passing by just outside the windows of the theater! The Opera House kept the town of Pacific up to date all the latest entertainment from Rag Time to Vaudeville and on through the Roaring 20’s. There was no need for town residents to take the long ride on the train into downtown St. Louis in order to get quality entertainment, as it was provided just down the street at the Pacific Opera House.

But big changes had to come. Audio recordings, movies, and radio introduced people across the country to the big bands throughout the 1930's. Automobiles - and a very modern Highway 66 - made travel into St. Louis easier than by train. The Pacific Opera House began to be forgotten. As World War II ended and America entered the modern post war period, a new cultural world arrived, and the first fifty years of music and theater remained only as a memory. The opera houses that followed the railroads during the first fifty years no longer had a place. They were closed and abandoned along with their rich cultural history. Since The Pacific Opera House was high up on the third floor, it was easily sealed up, used for long-term storage, and – most importantly – completely protected from the frequent floods of the nearby Meramec River.

And there it silently sat. …For decades! This sealed room became a precious time capsule of vaudeville history. A number of years ago, descendants of the original owners of the McHugh & Daily Mercantile Building decided to invest substantial amounts of money to restore the Opera House to its 1908 glory. Storage boxes were removed. Layer upon layer of dust was carefully pushed aside. A national treasure was revealed underneath this unpolished gem. The “tin ceiling” was indeed the original, and the single largest collection of St. Louis World’s Fair “tin” still surviving in one building in the entire country! The floorboards from the World’s Fair were as strong as ever. Local historians recalled that this floor took a beating in the 1930’s when it was used as a local roller derby for skaters. Here’s another good story: the second step - on stage left - was removable. Why? During the Prohibition 1920’s, illegal liquor was hidden there from the police. For safety concerns, that step has been securely nailed down for the twenty-first century visitor. No fear today of stepping on some “bathtub gin” bottles! One of the original potbelly stoves survived, and is today proudly on display at the top of the three-story St. Louis World’s Fair staircase. The 1908 grand piano was finally returned to its home in the theater to entertain for another century.

Today, only a few these vaudeville opera houses remain. It must be noted that The Opera House of Pacific is the only one still surviving in the country that is owned by the families who built it, and who continues its operation. Of course, today it has all the latest safety features, air conditioning, rest rooms, heating, and food service areas needed for modern audiences. For those who don’t wish to use the historic staircase, a modern elevator takes guests to the third floor theater. Second floor areas have been restored to include perfect sized modern meeting rooms for groups large and small. Part of the second floor was restored to its century old Victorian elegance for use with very special events. Of course, there is ample outdoor parking is available in the large, well-lit lot next to the building.

For all of us who may have been lucky enough to live during that golden era, or whose parents or grandparents enshrined this time in our memories, The Opera House of Pacific is a special place for remembering a romantic and happy past, along with celebrating the present and building a future. Here is the perfect place for period weddings, banquets, concerts, and variety shows. It is a place for you to create your most unique and memorable experiences. Give us a call. We just love to show off our Pacific Opera House treasure!