Musical Comedies, Tragedies Popular
With 1890 Opera-Going Bonhamites
It was the Broadway of New York, the vaudeville of Chicago and the entertainment center of the socially-minded of Bonham.
The time was the gay 1890s and the site was the Bonham opera house, which today shelters Ray Coonrod's County Boy's Store.
The opera house that Bonhamites either remember or have heard about was a lavish red brick structure, founded by Verge Steger who had migrated from Tennessee. It had double front doors, a richly decorated foyer, a broad, slanting stairway that led to an upstairs auditorium and balcony, and box seats. "Folding chairs," a new design in theater chairs, were just one of the comforts of the opera house.
History about the opera house came to light last week when Mrs. Eddie Hodge, a Bonhamite interested in Fannin county history, decided to sketch the opera house as it looked in the 1890s. With sketchbook in hand, she drew the opera house in hues of memories that Bonham citizens recalled.
Site of Steger Opera House, 1890-1920
An opera house was constructed at this site in 1890 by a stock company headed by Benjamin Dabney. Two years later it was purchased by Ed D. Steger. Under his direction, the Steger Opera House became a popular spot for early residents of the Bonham area. It was the scene of many theater productions, traveling shows, civic activities and local talent events. The Opera House later briefly served as a motion picture theater and then was used by a variety of commercial establishments. A landmark in the town for many years, it was razed in 1980.
Location: N. Center & 6th Street, Bonham.
Traveling shows, musical comedies and tragedies whetted the appetites of Bonham audiences. Tragedies were so realistic that one citizen jumped to his feet in the middle of a performance yelling, "Stop him! Stop him!" as the villan choked the heroine.
A historical moment at the opera house came with the scheduled production of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." One Bonhamite staunch in Southern views hired a local band to play "Dixie" over and over until the entire cast took the hint and departed for Denison . . never to perform the controversial play.
Many Bonham citizens ushered at the lavish performances. Among them were Wright Russell, Rogers Rainey, Paul Arledge, Stanley Stevens and Doug Steger, son of Verge Steger, the owner.
Heydays of the opera house included the concert of Maude Powell, famous violinist in early 1900s; Thomas W. Keene, the eminent Shakespearean actor, and Al Jolson, who played in 1913 for the North Texas area.
The Bonham News, Apr. 6, 1906, reported a disgraceful incident at the opera house: "There was a show pulled off at Steger Opera House last night called 'Duncan and Clark Ministrel' and for its rottenness, course vulgarity and unclean thought and action, it cannot be excelled. Bonham has been disgraced and her beautiful playhouse put into disrepute."
Oct. 18, 1898 is recalled as a lavish evening by one Bonham lady. She has a program from the performance of Richard III, the Shakespearean tragedy under the management of Charles B. Hansford, with Thomas W. Keene, the featured actor. "I remember the evening as highlight of prancing horses and elegant ladies. Hansford was very clever," she said.
Other Bonhamites have fond memories of the performances. Mrs. Will Nevill recalls her first stage play, "The Blue Mouse," in 1900 with her escort Will H. Nevill, her husband-to-be. A Bonham musician remembers the two-day May Festival for Hunt, Grayson, Lamar and Fannin counties. Carlton college students directed the affair with concert artists of international fame and the Bonham Music Club always provided a Bonham accompanist during the festival.
Later, the Chautauqua days of the opera house faded from New York to Bonham. Silent movies began their era and local plays and musical recitals were presented. Today Country Boy's Store is located in the original opera house building with new, second-hand and antique furniture.
Old Steger Opera House Is Nostalgic Landmark
Bonham Daily Favorite, September 2, 1973
The Fannin Historical Survey Committee is keeping an eye on the old Steger Opera House, located on North Center street, across from Safeway, which is standing alone again now that the buildings on the north have been torn away.
The members of the Historical committee are hoping that some way will be provided to preserve and restore Bonham’s first opera house.
It was built m 1890, and people came from miles around, even Dallas, to see some of the finest entertainment in North Texas.
“The Old Steger Opera House was one of the earliest built in Texas. It is a historical landmark and worthy of preservation for that reason alone,” Mrs. Harry Swann, Historical president, said. She said it is believed that Jerry Owens now owns the property.
Mrs. Dwight Hackley has kept numerous old clippings and programs on the opera house. They have been displayed in the history room at the court house. She also has preserved newspaper clippings from Bonham and Dallas papers.
One of the newspaper stories was written by C. R. Inglish many years ago at a time when the opera house was being remodeled. Mr. Inglish was expressing the same wish as that today of the Historical Committee that the old landmark could be restored and preserved.
In the article Inglish recalled the Opera House opening in 1890. He wrote:
“Col. Ed Steger and his brother, Virge, brought road shows here which played to standing room audiences on numerous occasions. Virge was the manager when he brought ‘Robin Hood’ to Bonham with a nationally known cast appearing in the light opera, which was presented with full orchestra. ‘Sparticus, the Gladiator,’ was another spectacular production staged at the \ opera house with a nationally " known star, R. LD. McLean, in 12 the cast.”
“MacBeth was presented here to a full house also, and many well known vocalists appeared on the stage, in addition to local benefit productions. Local talent would appear as soloists, both in vocal and instrumental music.”
Another program preserved of the days of the Opera Houe was one on the Graustark Co. This company transported elaborate scenes, designed and painted in New York for their productions, most of which were dramas.
Mrs. Hackley also has a clipping from the Dallas Morning News dated Dec. 4, 1892 which gives a financial background of the erection of the Opera House.
It stated "A joint stock company was formed about a year ago to build an opera house costing $15,000. Today the Opera House was sold to Ed D. Steger for $7,500. Virge Steger is manager and part owner. J. W. Farrier was a later manager. The opera house presented ‘A School for Scandal,” as the opening entertainment in the new Opera House.”
The historical survey committee has located the deed recorded at the Fannin County Court house showing a warranty deed made out to the company under supervision of Benjamin Dabney, dated Mar. 2, 1890. The Stegers sold the property to Tom Carter and Matt Pratt as recorded Apr. 24, 1920. The property has been rented to a variety of commercial businesses since that time, Mrs. Swann said.
“We feel that much of the history of Bonham has been lost over the years, and many important buildings torn down. The old Opera House is one of the most historical landmarks of early day Bonham. It has deteriorated, of course, but the walls still present the same architectural appearance as on opening night. It would make a really fine museum for Bonham if it could be restored and preserved. We realize we may be dreaming. . .but we historically minded residents never pass the building without wishing the landmark could be preserved.” the president of the Historical Survey Committee said.