Opera House

By Nicholas R. Cataldo

(Photographs courtesy of the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society)

The Inland Empire has a rich cultural past. In fact, if you lived in this area a century ago, you needn't travel far in order to see the great stars of the theatrical world. They came right here to the Opera House in San Bernardino.

An Opera House in San Bernardino? You betcha.

The Opera House at Court Street and "D" Streets was built four years before Los Angeles had one of its own and was for many years perhaps the finest and most elaborate theater in the Southland. Built by mountain man - turned civic leader - James W. Waters and Herman Brinkmeyer as an investment in 1882, the beautiful red-brick edifice with white façade topped by a golden eagle was famous throughout the country for presenting top quality shows and concerts. And the featured celebrities considered San Bernardino the best show town on the coast.

San Bernardino's Opera House
San Bernardino's Opera House Built in 1882, four years before L.A. had an Opera House.
The two gentlemen standing on the balcony are James W. Waters and Herman Brinkmeyer.

The Grand Opening Performance

The grand opening at the Opera House featured Hamilton's Royal Australian Minstrels, which played to a packed house. This form of entertainment proved to be a popular dress-up affair for years to come as the Free Press proudly indicated in 1902. One of their ads announced that Clyde Fitch's patriotic play entitled "Nathan Hale" would be presented at the theater. Leading star, Howard Kyle, was supported by "carefully chosen company". Those attending were treated to "Humor, sentiment, romance, patriotism. Complete scenic production. Correct costumes." Tickets ranged from 25 cents to $1.50.

Lillie Langtry, "The Jersey Lily"

Born on the small British Island of Jersey, Lillie Langtry was a superstar of her day. With worldwide public fame and admiration, she commanded record-breaking fees for performances on stage during her acting career.

Having been successful on the London stage, Ms. Langtry left for her first theater tour of the United States in 1882, having negotiated the highest salary ever paid to an actress. She quickly became a favorite of the American public, with box office receipts reaching record proportions.

Below is a photograph of Ms. Langtry and a souvenir program from one of her performances at the San Bernardino Opera House in 1888.

Ms. Lillie Langtry Lillie Langtry Souvenir Program
New York Style Entertainers

After Waters passed away, his daughter, Mrs. Martha Kiplinger took over management of the place in 1894. She immediately began booking traveling shows to appear in the house and by the turn of the century, came the really big time "New York style" entertainers.

Both grand and light opera performances were introduced by national companies on tour. Maude Adams, Lillian Russell, Al Jolson, George M. Cohan, and Sarah Bernhardt came to San Bernardino. Broadway also sent our way such all time greats as Will Rogers, Sir Harry Lauder, Mae West, the Barrymores, and magician Harry Houdini.

The Italian Grand Opera Company of Milan, Italy performed "Lucia De Lammermoor" at San Bernardino's Opera House in 1899. And before it closed its doors, the Opera House was the site of numerous other grand operas, including "La Tosca" and "Faust".

Shakespeare's plays were regularly performed at the Opera House including: Macbeth, Romero and Juliet, King Henry VIII, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, King Lear, and The Taming of the Shrew.

Sold Out Crowds

According to the late Sun columnist, Earl E. Buie, in one of his "They Tell Me" columns in 1958, the Opera House's seating capacity was between 1,200 and 1,400. He noted that on the really big nights like when Maude Adams performed in Peter Pan, and when David Warfield came to town with "The Auctioneer", the house sold out days in advance.

Some of the other great performances of the Opera House's heyday included: Lillian Russell in "Wildfire", George M. Cohan and Sam H. Harris in "Brewster's Millions", Madame Nazimova in "A Doll's House", Ethel Barrymore in "The Five-Pound Look," and an all African-American cast in "Shuffle Off to Buffalo".

Remodeling in 1912

The theater was extensively remodeled inside and out in 1912. Long time San Bernardino resident [and Pioneer Women] Janet Miles recalled in her recently published memoirs that " There were box seats on the north and south walls with red velvet curtains at the rear. The orchestra pit was in front of the stage at floor level. Birdie Bohan and Edith Ulrich were the pianists, Ernest De Soto, the violinist, and Mr. Parsons played the drums." One of the biggest shows came in 1913 when Maude Adams starred at the Opera House in "Peter Pan". The San Bernardino Daily Sun reported on April 18:

"The appearance of Maude Adams in (James M.) Barrie's "Peter Pan" at the Opera House tonight is certain to attract one of the largest audiences that has ever filled the theater. Miss Adam's portrait of Peter, the boy who wouldn't grow up, is full of elfish charm and beauty."

Motion Pictures Come to the Opera House

Within a year, the theater began catering to a new entertainment craze--motion pictures--by showing silent movies as well as vaudeville.

The grand old Opera House was torn down in 1927 when Court Street was extended from "D" Street through to the "new" Court House on Arrowhead Avenue.