Remember When . . .
Burlington was once able to boast of an Opera House having the second largest stage in Wisconsin. That building, which stood on the corner of what is now N. Kane Street and Milwaukee Avenue, and its stage are shown in the accompanying photos from the collection of the Burlington Historical Society. The photo of the building is from a postcard published about 1903 by S. M. Reinardy. The photo of the stage was taken by Howard A. Wood in 1911. Sitting on the stage are members of a traveling vaudeville company. Standing at right is Burlington’s Howard Colburn, who was managing the building at that time. The three-piece orchestra in front of the stage called themselves LeGrande Trio. The members were Burlington musicians Fred Boulden on drums, Theodore Korn on violin, and pianist Laura Prasch.
The building was constructed in 1871 by members of a men’s social club called the Teutonia Society. The club was formed when three separate groups joined together. One was a German singing and social group called the Teutonia Singing Club; the second, a theatrics group called the German Dramatic Society; and the third, a gymnastics and athletic group called the Turner Society. Each of the three groups was listed separately in a business directory of Burlington published in the Burlington Gazette in March 1860.
The Teutonia Singing Club had been organized in May 1853 with its purpose being “the elevation and refinement of the popular song and the recreation of social life.” The charter members included Joseph Bock, William Riel, Henry Martensen, Francis Reuschlein, Jacob Muth, Julius Lueck, Dr. Frederick Kords, Joseph Wackerman, Sr., John Riess, Richard Weygand, Conrad Bosshard, William Funk, Charles Wagner, Frederick Keuper, Mathias Bachmeier, Henry Burhans, Casper Scheidt, and William Rein. A few evenings later, Jacob Wambold, Martin Schafer, Ciriak Prailes, Frederick Willhoft, and Jacob Oelten joined the ranks.
Until 1870 the Singing Club experienced financial difficulties. To rent a meeting room, buy a stove and wood, and get other necessities were matters of great concern at the beginning. It was even difficult to obtain candles to light up the meeting room. However, after a few public concerts and a grand ball swelled the treasury, the club was able to buy a club banner and a piano. By the late 1850s, the club had assumed the leading place in the social life of Burlington. In every celebration, or festival, or other public gathering in the village, the club took a prominent part. Heading every procession, floating from every platform was the club’s banner.
After the German Dramatic and Turner societies joined the Teutonia Singing Club in what they called the Teutonia Society, the members – as one club – bought the property and erected the building that was first known as “Teutonia Halle” and later as the Opera House and then the Orpheum Theatre. The dedication banquet was scheduled for October 8, 1871, but hearing of the Great Chicago Fire that night, Society members packed the big roasts and everything that went with them and sent them by railroad to the sufferers.
With the hall finished, theatricals, music, and athletic sports flourished in the village. There was now a place where concerts could be given, plays produced, and men could exercise on the turning poles and bars. The hall, which had a seating capacity of 600, was also used over the years for dances, masquerade balls, banquets, school commencements, political meetings, fund-raising benefits, vaudeville shows, and other community activities. It was even set up at times as a roller skating rink. After moving pictures became popular around 1910, the building was also used as a movie theatre.
In May 1877 the Society also started a park project. The members purchased 10 acres out on West Chestnut Street overlooking the White River. There they established Teutonia Park, which hosted community picnics and other outdoor activities until 1887, when the land was sold. Today the park is remembered in the name of Teutonia Drive.
Electricity was first installed in the Opera House in 1888, with 55 lights illuminating the main hall. In 1908 a modern stage (shown in the 1911 photo) replaced the original stage, which had been 30 feet deep and 46 feet wide. The new stage was 32 feet deep, 55 feet wide with an opening of 32 feet, and 60 feet high at the highest point. The auditorium was also enlarged by 30 feet. In 1916 the basement was remodeled to furnish additional dining room, and in 1924 the building received a new and modern front. Later, the building was leased to a theatre firm and remodeled into the Orpheum Theatre. The old level floor was replaced by a sloping floor and theater seats were installed.
In 1928 Teutonia Society members voted to disband, the Society’s back having been broken by Prohibition. A private company, the Teutonia Corporation, was formed and incorporated to engage in the purchase and improvement of real estate and to operate and manage theatres and public halls. It took over the building, continuing the lease to the theatre firm.
Early in the morning of January 23, 1930, with the temperature around 12 degrees below zero, a fire of undetermined origin was discovered in the building. The fire trucks and members of the department were on the job promptly, but before they arrived the interior was a mass of flames. Then came explosions that caused large portions of the brick walls to be thrown great distances and sections of the roof to be hurled clear of the building. The explosions also sent sparks and flying embers spreading flames throughout the building. The firemen were able to save the surrounding buildings, but the community’s social and cultural center, which through three generations had fostered the love of music and drama, encouraged individual expression of the finer arts, and promoted social fellowship, was destroyed.
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Burlington Historical Society
Last modified: 10/13/2015