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We know her as Glinda the Good Witch of the North in the ubiquitous movie The Wizard of Oz. Yet, actress Billie Burke enjoyed a well-established theater career before going into films. In 1910, she offered Detroit audiences a New York theatrical experience by reprising her role of Jacqueline in the play Love Watches. This romantic comedy was produced by the well-known theatrical impresario Charles Frohman. The Detroit venue: the Detroit Opera House at Campus Martius.
The First Opera House
The theater where Billie played was actually the rebuilt Detroit Opera House. The original opera house (1869-1897) began as the dream of theater manager Barney Macauley and industrialist William Livingston. Macauley and Livingston formed the Opera House Association, whose goal was to bring first-class theatrical productions to Detroit. The Association wanted the legitimate and the lavish. This required real estate. The ideal property was the site of the H. R. Andrews Railroad Hotel on the north side of Campus Martius. The acreage was large, and the location ideal because of surrounding commercial interests.
The plan hit a snag when Livingston, the prime mover, left for Europe, and the Association members began to rethink the project. Dr. Eliphalet M. Clark, a prominent Detroit physician, stepped in and bought the property from the Association for $55,000. He then hired architect and artist Mortimer L. Smith to design the building. The five-story opera house designed by Smith reflected the popularity of French Renaissance architecture in Detroit. It opened on March 29, 1869, with the production London Assurance, a five-act comedy by Dion Boucicault.
The fortunes of the Detroit Opera House depended on embracing a major change in the theatrical world: the rise of the road companies over stock players employed by a single theater. Touring groups worked their way from New York to the West Coast, and Detroit was on the circuit. Detroiters enjoyed operas (Carmen, La Traviata, Pagliacci), plays by Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, Hamlet), plays by Richard Brinsley Sheridan (The Rivals and The School for Scandal), and comic operas by Gilbert and Sullivan (H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, The Sorcerer). The Detroit Opera House offered popular musical variety and minstrel shows performed by troupes such as Haverly’s United Mastodon Minstrels. Borrowing techniques of showmen P.T. Barnum, Jack H. Haverly emphasized the spectacular: a large company of musicians (brass band, drum corps, etc), elaborate costumes and scenery. Yet it was a minstrel show — white musicians performing in blackface.
The Second Opera House…and Charles Frohman
The first Detroit Opera House was destroyed by fire on October 7, 1897. It was rebuilt on the site and reopened on September 12, 1898. Architect George D. Mason designed the new structure. Mason changed the architectural style from French Renaissance to Italian. One aspect of the building that continued in both the 1869 and 1898 versions: retail space on the first floor. An important development for the renewed opera house: productions bankrolled by Charles Frohman.
A native of Sandusky, Ohio, Frohman was a major influence in American theater. In 1896, he and other New York producers organized the Theatrical Syndicate. Its purpose was to centralize the bookings of theatrical productions nationwide. The Syndicate soon controlled all aspects of theater production in New York and throughout the country. This monopoly usually benefitted the producers, not the individual theater or actor. A failure to meet Syndicate terms could translate into plays being withheld from local venues. Charles Frohman is considered a “star maker.” Some sources characterize him as an idealist who discovered and encouraged successful actors; others stress the entrepreneur who manipulated the system for financial gain.
Regardless, it appears that Frohman liked Detroit. Thanks to him, Detroiters were able to enjoy performances by John Drew, Ethel Barrymore, Maude Adams and Billie Burke. Charles Frohman was returning from Europe after scouting new productions when he died on the Lusitania.
In 1919, the Detroit Opera House became the Shubert-Detroit Opera House. This business permutation did not last very long. The opera house could not survive the economic dislocation of the Depression, and ended up closing in 1931. Interestingly, during this period Billie Burke renewed her movie career and became popular with roles in Dinner at Eight (1933) and Topper (1937). But she is most known as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, who knew the secret of the ruby slippers.
Peterson, William A., A History of the Professional Theatre of Detroit, Michigan, September 13, 1875 to July 3, 1886. (Dissertation: Florida State University 1959).
Detroit Free Press, 1890-1920.