About Harlan Hall - Building Significance

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The Harlan Hall Opera House meets Criterion A for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. It is a locally significant building associated with an important grassroots trend in American cultural and entertainment history during the last 19th and early 20th centuries; namely, the widespread demand by rural and small communities for cultural and intellectual entertainment that required a specialized theatrical facility, the opera house. The period of significance for Harlan Hall is from 1872 when the building was constructed to 1904 when it basically ceased operation as an opera house.

Economic prosperity and the growing network of railroads made it possible for smaller communities in Illinois, and elsewhere in the country, to accommodate amateur and professional entertainment which earlier had been enjoyed, for the most part, only by large communities. In addition to its theatrical function, the opera house was often utilized for a wide variety of purposes, including community events. The Opera House functioned in its community as an integrating force. the catalyst that brought together all aspects, political, social, intellectual, religious, aesthetic, humanistic, and recreational were experienced by people meeting together at a common place, the Opera House, to share in such experiences and to discuss them. The Opera House was a forum where local decisions and values were forged.

Townspeople and local farming families were entertained and gathered for public meetings and events at Harlan Hall. Built in 1872, it provided a stage not only for theatrical performance but also for the rural community social life and intellectual and cultural development. Although Marshall was never very large, only 3,800 people today, it supported a cultural institution found in communities many times larger.

The history of the small town opera house is linked to the extraordinary expansion of the theater during the last three decades of the 19th century. Stage entertainment had included since earlier in the century several specialized forms. Variety, "Tom Shows" (touring productions of "Uncle Tom's Cabin), the circus, burlesque, and minstrel shows were organized to operate on an unprecedented national scale after 1870. Previously, a small community may have entertained itself with local theatrical groups; however, about 1870, the road show, or touring company, began making its impact on the cultural life of smaller cities and towns. Few companies were in operation before the 1870's, in part because transportation was restricted to stagecoach, riverboat, and relatively few rail lines between major cities. However, with the expansion of the railroad system by 1880, road show bookings in smaller communities were possible and sought after. The first passenger train stopped in Marshall in, 1870, bringing a new and vibrant way of life to a sleepy country town. Suddenly Marshall had access to all parts of the country, and it became important to show others that we had just as much as larger towns.

Rural towns such as Marshall, more than likely made bookings with regional touring repertoire companies, rather than those based out of New York. These stock troupes were to become 2,000 strong by 1910.

The design of buildings constructed for entertainment purposes in small towns and villages was influenced by the growth of the theater business. Before the Civil war, social and cultural events were held in general utility halls which were usually located on an upper floor of a larger building. Public halls very often were no more than long, rectangular rooms designed to accommodate dinners and dances, as well as theater performances. A stage or sloping house or balcony for improved viewing of theater entertainment were rare design features in small public halls. Structures specifically designed as playhouses generally began to appear in small towns after 1870. The increase in theatrical activity caused small town businessmen to build opera houses that met the needs of touring companies. However, like general utility halls, they were often used for non-dramatic events, and many were situated above commercial establishments. While the stage was a crucial feature for the increasingly popular touring company, the floor of the house area usually remained flat and were furnished with removable chairs or benches. Sometimes small balconies were constructed at the rear and sides of the room. Exceptions always prove the rule for some small towns, like Marshall, were fortunate to have a special building constructed to serve as an opera house, and it had a balcony, too.

It was important for opera houses to have the latest stage improvements in order to attract the better and more elaborate touring companies. Opera houses were designed to have dressing rooms, set scenery, lighting and curtain machinery, and trapdoors. Although Harlan Hall apparently had most of these features, it was essentially a small time operation which, more than likely, was never able to accommodate large, national touring companies. When the opera house sold in 1904, the sale referred to theater equipment, including scenery, stage equipment, stoves, and furniture. Therefore, these essentials were a part of the hall in its early years.

Several original handbills were found in a local scrapbook of 1879 to 1889. Although the name on the book is illegible, most handbills have a handwritten notation by the young lady as to who she attended the program with and what she wore. Some of the programs given at the Hall are as follows:

Elocutionary and Dramatic Entertainment by Miss Eva Norton's Class in Elocut'n, Pantomine - The Mistletoe Bough, Saturday Eve. Nov. 22, 1879.

Programme of Temperance Entertainment, Thursday Eve., March 11, 1886. The entertainment will conclude with the laughable Farce, entitled "A Little More Cider."

Marshall High School First Annual Commencement Exercises, Thursday Eve., May 19th, 1881.

Programme of the Grand Combination of the Celebrated Artists Davis Family-Hydelotte-Leibing. With vocalists, elocutionist, and pianist.

Simmons S Mower's UNCLE TOM"S CABIN, Philip H. Lehnen, Manager, March, 1883.

1880's newspaper article: The reception given by the Friday Club at Harlan Hall, tomorrow evening, gives promise of being one of unusual enjoyment. The attendance from the surrounding towns will be good, and from the city will be very large. An excellent programme has been arranged, and the best music secured.

May 5th, 1882, Marshall High School Second Annual Commencement.

Mid 1882, Gibler Bros. Humpty Dumpty and Musical Specialty Co., with overture and orchestra.

W. C. Matthews and Miss Nellie Harris in highly amusing comedy entitled "Trifles!"

H. C. Gibler and J. P. Rees in Dutch Songs and Funny Sayings.

Prof. C. e. Carter - America's Representative Juggler Prof. A. T. Gordon Violin soloist.

The Boneless Wonder, - Harry Athol, ...the greatest contortionist ON EARTH.

New Orleans Minstrels Programme for this evening.

Silvery Quartette Clog Tournament by Mssrs. Stiles, Maxwell, Welby S Pearl.

Modern School of Acting by Welby and Green

Take Down the Sign! John Stiles Minstrel Songster

HARLAN HALL CONCERT--Benefit of Marshall's Poor! Saturday Eve., February 25, 1882.

HARLAN'S HALL Benefit Concert - Thursday Evening, July 20, 1882, L. A. Wallace Conductor, Mrs. Eliza Archer organist. (An all vocal music program with local talent.)

HARLAN'S HALL Grand Concert! - Wednesday Eve., Nov. 29, 1882, Benefit of Presbyterian Church! Music program, and concludes with a laughable farce, entitled: Bamboozling!

Davis Family Concert Company, Programme of music and recitations by Prof. Carhart.

Georgia Minstrels, America's Favorites, Richards & Pringle, Proprietors., 0. E. Richards, Manager, ... Performance will conclude with the laughable Burlesque, entitled Harris' Ball. This Programme is subject to change.

HARLAN HALL School Concert, Saturday Evening, Dec. 8th, 1883. Benefit of the Public Schools; (entire musical program of vocal music and recitations by local residents).


HARLAN'S HALL, Saturday Evening, April 26, 1884, Matinee at 2:30 P.m. ENTERTAINMENT consisting of MUSICAL, DRAMATIC. The Beautiful Fan Drill. (program consists of mostly local names.)

OPERA HOUSE - Richardson's Dramatic Combination, Silver Band and Orchestra. presenting Joaquin Miller's great American. Play, founded on thrilling episodes in Mormon life, entitled the DANITES!

HARLAN'S OPERA HALL -- Three nights only, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, March 5th, 6th, and 7th, 1885. "THE BLUE and THE GRAY;" "THE BATTLE OF SHILOH!" A beautiful tableaux and full grand orchestra.

Sparks & Company. Edouin A Sanger, Proprietors, In their latest and greatest success, as performed over 250 nights in New York. A BUNCH OF KEYS.

The original NASHVILLE STUDENTS, The Celebrated Jubilee and Plantation Singers. Wilson S Theatre Proprietors.

The McNeil Family. W. B. McNeil, Manager and A. D. Cameron, Bus. Agent. Vocal and instrumental musical program. This evening's entertainment will conclude with a musical sketch entitled: THE GERMAN LOVERS.

Clark County Herald, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Tuesday, January 3, 1882. Frolic Farewell. Society kisses the pale lips of the dying year--her pleasures and pastimes. Friday Club Reception. Some 40 couples congregated at Harlan Hall, Wednesday evening last, to pay tribute to the hillarity [sic] of the holidays and participated in the first annual reception of the Friday Club. 'The large hall was very comfortably filled and the toilets of the ladies were among the finest ever worn in this city. By some decree of fate, however, all was not as pleasant as it might have been, for the floor had been improperly waxed, and dancing was almost an impossibility. It was necessary to adjourn to the club room area, where the floor was in better condition. ... The music, furnished by Toots and five men,   was fine, and the new figures called were not the least interesting part of the pleasures of the evening. Dancing continued until nearly 3 o'clock.

Clark County Herald, Vol. XV. No. 763, Tuesday, March 27, 1863. "The Brazil Opera Company" billed for Harlan's Opera House, on the evening of the 29th. The play is "KATIE DEAN." "The Brazil Brass Band, in full uniform, will accompany the operatic troup to this city. The play is “KATIE DEAN.” “Don't fail to see it.”

"The Little Duke," at the hall, on Tuesday evening last, was a very creditable performance, taking into consideration the youth of the actors. The singing of two of them, at least, was very good. Also, the acting of the Duke and Duchess was well appreciated. Taking all in all, they were fully up to the average of theatrical troupes that visit us.


Clark County Democrat, December, 1908 issues, "The skating rink opened in the Johnson's Hall Saturday evening with a good crowd." “The dance given by the Pleasure Club in Johnson's Hall last night was very largely attended. Excellent music was furnished by the home orchestra. A number of out of town guests were present.”

Picture of Masquerade Skating Party, February 6, 1909. John Ferris manager.

In a personal interview with a local historian, Joan Strange, she stated her Mother often told about attending "BEN HUR" at Harlan Hall about 1898. In the play was a real horse on a treadmill on stage. As it galloped along, the scenery moved to give the appearance the chariot and horse were moving along the roadway. She also told about her Father renting surreys at Harlan Hall for a Sunday afternoon of "courting." A feed bag of oats for the horse was an extra 5¢.

In 1981 a survey was mailed to all Illinois towns with a population of under 10,000 resulted in approximately 200 responses with infor­mation about the local opera house. Of the 200 communities, 71 structures were still standing in various stages of repair. In many cases, the buildings had limited historic integrity due to remodeling, neglect, and abandonment. The Harlan Hall opera house was not included in the 71 buildings. However, due to its excellent physical integrity, both on the exterior and interior, and a fine example of a late 19th century free standing small town opera house, it is an excellent candidate for listing in the National Register.

At the present time there are only eight Illinois opera houses listed in the National Register of Historic Places:


Woodstock Opera House
Woodstock 1-7-74

Galva Opera House
Galva 2-11-82

Sesser Opera House
Sesser  3-12-82

Phoenix Opera House
Rushville  5-09-85

Alexis Opera House
Alexis  7-30-87

Fife Opera House
Palestine  1-26-90

Odd Fellow Opera Block
Ellisville  8-08-96 

Beardstown Grand Opera House
Beardstown 5-11-00

While many of these locations are combination commercial buildings and opera house, the Sesser and Woodstock buildings are structures built to either house only an opera house, in the case of the Sesser Opera House, or several community services as in Woodstock. Harlan Hall Opera House was built as a free standing opera house and had the unique feature of the drive-in livery stable on the primary floor.

During the latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th century, national theater/public hall directories were published to assist touring companies, theater/hall owners and managers, and agents in making bookings. Four directories, dating from 1870, 1878, 1884, and 1908, contained theater/hall listings for a total of 216 Illinois cities and towns. Sweet's Amusement Directory & Travelers Guide of 1870-1871 listed 24 Illinois cities. Eight years later, 132 communities were included in Jon B. Jeffery's Guide and Directory. The season of 1884-1885 in Harry T. Miner's American Dramatic Directory recorded 178 communities with theatrical facilities.

By 1908 Illinois had 127 listings in Julius Cahn's Official Theatrical Guide. It is mostly likely that small towns not advertising in the directories, such as Marshall, did not receive many, if any bookings from the national circuit of touring companies. More than likely regional companies, which catered to the small towns and regularly returned each successful season, were the bulk of Marshall bookings.