Pella Opera House History

Thanks to Helen Boertje for researching and writing this information on the Pella Opera House. October 2010.

The Pella Opera House, on its original location at 611 Franklin St. had gone through a series of changes to its facade while the interior was in need of major repair. In a kind of reverse Cinderella story, the Opera House with the help of many Pella citizens once again resembles the grand building it was when it first opened in 1900.

That year Pella was ready for a new place to hold cultural activities such as musicals, plays, vaudeville shows, banquets, and other parties. According to an article written by Ray Koenigs in the 1986 Pella History Book an earlier Opera House had been built in 1860. That building had been destroyed in a fire in 1883 and it was three years before there was talk of building a replacement. On July 21, 1900 ground was broken and construction began.

The building was designed by Architect Stanley De Gooyer and was built and largely financed by Herman Rietveld, owner of the Pella Drain and Tile Company. The Pella Advertiser of Nov. 8, 1900 says that Mr. Rietveld has done more for the building interests of Pella than any other man in our city. The building in which Smokey Row is located is another building constructed of bricks from his company. He also built several buildings in Harvey and Monroe, the hometown of his first wife Frances Ota Livingston. A business man with many interests, he was involved in banking, newspaper publishing, various manufacturing businesses and farming.

Today in the triangle at the top of the Opera House one can read the words Opera House Block. Block in this case is a reference to a business area building rather than a city block. The building was 65 feet high, 120 feet long and 40 feet wide. A few days before its opening the Pella Advertiser stated that the ground floor will be devoted to offices, an implement room, a heating plant for the entire building as well as the box office and grand staircase leading to the second floor theater. The stage is 28 feet in depth with an opening 18x 20 and fitted with the latest scenery from the finest studios in the US. There was also a balcony and above that on the 4th floor will be a large room with a Brussels carpet, fit for receptions and banquets. Hundreds of incandescent lights will illuminate the interior.

The opening play on Saturday Nov. 16, 1900 at 12:30 was "What Happened to Jones?" The critic who reviewed the performance praised the orchestra but complained that the play itself was devoid of any real plot to give it an interest and consisted in the sandwiching of jokes both new and old between the flimsy makeshift of a plot.

For several years admission prices remained at 25, 35, and 50 cents. The management secured a variety of entertainment ranging from vaudeville acts to the world renowned Hungarian Orchestra, which received rave reviews in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. In Dec. 1901 the review critic states that 500 people attended the "Enemy to the Queen", a tragic play while reviews of other events report that the attendance was not what it should be.

Building a large opera house that could accommodate 1000 in its various rooms seems a bit optimistic for Pella, which had a population of 3000 in 1900. However, it was difficult to travel very far so every town depended on the entertainment coming to them. Nor could the builders have imagined that in a few years silent movies, not musicals and plays, would become the main attraction. Although the Pella Opera House added silent movies to its entertainment as soon as they became available, just down the street at 725 Franklin, Henry De Gooyer opened the Electric Palace. Here silent movies accompanied by mood music were shown from 1908 to 1917. Seeking to persuade patrons of the Opera House that movies were a suitable form of entertainment a 1905 advertisement assures there is nothing coarse, nothing vulgar, nothing rude about them. They are an enjoyable instructive entertainment for ladies, gentlemen and children-- a solid 2 hours of bright, happy motion pictures accompanied by appropriate sounds and sensational stage effects.

In Jan. 25, 1906 a Chronicle article says that Manager J. S. Gladstone and Rich Sybenga have purchased a pop making machine in Chicago for $3000. This was to be installed in the basement of the opera house to manufacture all kinds and flavors of pop, as well as ginger ale, soda, seltzer water and birch beer.

Mr. Gladstone also encouraged local talent to make more use of the theater. In the spring of 1906 the high school play "By the Enemy's Hands" was performed there. Directed by Mrs. H. D. Wormhoudt, the student actors were Harry De Reus, Alonzo Wormhoudt, Walker Sadler, Martin Paardekooper, Herman Todd, Sam Van Vliet, Tunis Klein, Laura Kramer, Margaret Van Niewaal, Gertie Renaud, Harriet Rietveld, Percy Leland, Harry Vander Linden and Marion Gosselink.

In 1909 the Chronicle reports that the Opera House was being used in a variety of ways including the local Democrat Convention and a roller skating party hosted by Laura Kramer and Madge Vander Zlyl where "a jolly good time was enjoyed by all."

In a 1911 advertisement, J. F. Burns, practical electrician and contractor, announced that he has opened an office and supply room on the first floor of the Opera House.

The use of the Opera House took an unexpected turn in Oct. of 1915 when the Women's Federated Club inspected its rooms and decided to rent them for a year. Soon they had papered and painted the ground floor and converted it to a "rest room." Today this a term that we use for a small room with toilet facilities but then it was a term used for a lounge where travelers and shoppers could "rest" for a while. It proved to be very popular. Women could leave their children with Miss Grace Visser, matron, for 10 cents an hour or 25 cents for three hours.

The Opera House now became the Federated Club building. A few performances were still given in the second floor theater. The editorial comment in the Chronicle said "a rose by any other name will smell just as sweet. . .we believe that this building by the ladies can be made a credit to the city instead of a dark rendezvous for rats, bats, and poker games as has been in its past history. Go to it ladies, you are the only live, public spirited bunch in the city; hurrah for you!"

From the time the Opera House opened in 1900 until it closed in 1918 it had a number of different owners and managers. Perhaps the most famous owners were members of the Harrah family of Las Vegas. John Harrah owned it from 1910 to 1913 when he sold it to Susan B. Donovan. That same year she sold it to Adam Harrah who sold it to B. Ver Meer in 1918. The Chronicle of Nov. 28, 1918 reports that Mr. B. Ver Meer of the White Way Auto Company has purchased the Pella Opera House and "plans to convert it into one of the most up-to-date service stations in this section of the country." The company must have changed its mind as three months later it was sold to the Farmers Produce Co. Bob Klein recalls that this company bought and sold pigeons and chickens. An advertisement in the Chronicle indicates that it was still occupying the ground floor in 1926.

In 1925 John Wynberg (Vol. II of the Pella History) located his produce business in the building for a short time. He bought cream, eggs, and chickens from local farms and sold Sargent's Feed. Two advertisements from 1926 and 1928 indicate that Veterinarian Dr. W. C. Ver Ploeg also occupied a space in the Opera House building. The Farmers Union Coop purchased the building in 1927. This is the business that I remember the most from the late 30's and early 40's when my parents "traded" at this combination produce house and grocery store. Every Saturday afternoon we would drive to the back entry to unload our egg cases where we were given credit rather than cash. Then my mother would go to the front of the building and hand her grocery list to the clerk at the counter. The clerk would pick the items off the shelves behind the counter and add up the cost. Sometimes there would be credit left over, but often mother would have to dig in her pocket book for the extra amount owed. Last came that dreaded trip back to our rented locker on the east side of the building. It was so cold it took my breath away. Mother would pick out a few packages of meat and a quart of frozen strawberries to take home.

Bob Klein mentioned that during the 30's people would gather on the 4th floor to listen to radio broadcasts of Central College basketball games.

In 1957 the building was sold to Neal Leydens and Herman Swank who sold it to Logan Andeweg and Keith Aldrich in 1974. The same year Logan and Keith sold it to Lloyd and Betty Shanks. Betty sold it to the Pella Historical Society in 1987.

During the time when Swank and Leydens owned the building it housed an antique shop with bowling alley on the first floor and a skating rink on an upper floor.

From 1967 to 1984 the first floor was the Gambles Hardware store. The city of Pella established an arts center on the 2nd floor in 1969 under the direction of Sallie De Reus and Sonja Valdes. In 1975, the space became a Recreation Teen Center. My daughter remembers attending dances there as a teenager.

By the mid 1980's the building was looking a bit shabby. It had served many functions over the years and its original function as an Opera House had been forgotten by most. Should it be torn down and be replaced by a more up to date structure or could it be repaired? (Thanks to Sallie De Reus and Elaine Jaarsma for their recent research on the history of businesses on Franklin Street and to Bob Klein for his tape recorded memories of the Opera House through the years.)

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