Destroyed by Fire 99 Years Ago, Attleboro's Opera House Still Fresh in Residents' Minds
Fire destroyed the opera house, but it did not eliminate the memories.
Many Attleboro residents admire the Bates building, located at the corner of North Main and Park Streets, for its imposing brick façade and large round-topped windows, but what many people in Attleboro may not realize is that the building once housed the renowned Bates Opera House, which suffered major damage in a fire exactly 99 years ago today.
On January 31, 1912, the driver of a steam engine automobile lost control while turning onto North Main Street then accidentally backed up into the plate glass store window on the corner of North Main and Park Streets, into the Bates Building. Ironically he was returning from a night at the opera in Boston when he accidentally destroyed Attleboro’s own Opera House.
Two firemen were injured while was nearly hit by the tumbling theatre chandelier. The wreckage, including damage to the theater, apartments on the third floor and stores on the first floor, totaled $150,000, a huge sum nearly a century ago.
The Bates Opera House was contracted by J. M. Bates a noted local jewelry manufacturer and built by William H. Goff in 1885. The building still stands at the corner of North Main and Park Streets today and so does the old Opera House, but only in ruins and in the memories of Attleboro’s older residents.
"My experience with the Bates Opera House was during WWII - so times were very different from today," Attleboro's Nancy Adams said. "I was very lucky in the fact that I lived near downtown and could walk the couple of blocks with a girl friend or two.
"The Saturday Matinee was the hit of the week and the theatre would be filled with kids - but we were very well behaved - no fooling around or you got kicked out and not let back in again," she added. "No second chances."
“A quarter was a lot of money - believe it or not - but it bought a lot in a kid's view - and my mom always made sure there was one for me for the Saturday movies. For twenty-five cents we watched two movies, a few cartoons, a newsreel and had popcorn and a drink!
Adams said she was a" very lucky little girl in tough times," but I had no clue how bad the economy really was. "My parents always saw to it that I had what I needed and the movie was my treat - can't ask for anything more than that."
Bates had seating for approximately 1,000, according to Julius Cahn's Official Theatrical Guide of 1897-8 . The stage was 43-feet deep, 60-feet wide and 27-feet in height. The ceiling of the Opera House extended well into the Bates' Building's third floor. At the center of the stage was a trap door leading down to an area below nine feet in height.
A Proscenium arch 30-feet wide and 27- feet high, which separated the audience from the actors, framed the scene for the audience. An ornate chandelier and elaborate boxes added to the Opera House's grandeur.
"For Attleboro, with its population of only 8,000 at the time, to have had an opera house is quite impressive," Cahn noted.
The first floor of the Bates Building included an Opera House Café, hotel and post office as well as other shops. The Opera House occupied the second floor and part of the third floor. There were also apartments on the third floor. A fourth floor was added to the Bates Building after the fire.
The Bates Theatre featured violin recitals, organ recitals, light opera and choral performances, according to Paul Tedesco's book 1894 Attleborough, Attleboro 1978.
“The stairs leading up into the theater were either granite or marble and quite grand," Bette Fuller, an Attleboro resident recalls. Fuller said she remembers dancing on stage of the Opera House with Attleboro’s noted dance instructor Janet White Salley Frazier. "I remember hearing that the beautiful brass railings were sold during renovation and may still be in Attleboro somewhere.
Cal Archard, local businessman and former owner of the Bates building also remembers stories of the Opera House's grand white marble double staircase that led up to the second-floor lobby and theater. The staircase would have been located at what is today Elco Carpets' front door; the stage would have been above the back section of Elco's.
Archard recalls hearing about Verdi's opera Aida being performed with a live elephant at the Bates Opera House.
“My grandfather along with a few of his associates at one time owned the Bates Theater,” Attleboro's Ted Leach, said. “My dad loved going to downtown to the theater. He loved being the kid who could get all of his friends into the movies for free!”
Doris Gagnon, 92, remembers dancing in a production of Swan Lake, which was the last performance with the Opera House’s noted pipe organ.
“In another one of my performances, former Attleboro Court Magistrate Jimmy Sullivan sang “I See a Face Before Me” as I walked onto the stage through an arbor of flowers," she said. "He had a fine Irish voice–it sure was thrilling!”
After the fire of 1912, the Opera House was rebuilt and reopened as the not-so fancy New Bates Theater.
Today, inexplicably the Opera House turned Theater lives on in an area of charred rafters and beams. This area is walled off, but still accessible.
Marion Wrightington, chairwoman of the Attleboro Historical Commission, thought perhaps this area wasn’t needed and therefore not part of the renovation. She has had the opportunity to see the remains. “You can see seating and the stage area if you use a bit of your imagination," she said.
While owning the Bates Building, Archard received several requests from Attleboro residents to view what remains of the Opera House. "It was a bit tricky to get there. You needed to climb up a ladder. I don't recommend it as there is simply nothing there left to see, just the rafters and beams."
Newt Wentworth, former owner of the Coopers’ located in the Bates building, took the tour into a second-floor closet and up a rickety staircase that led to the theater balcony.
George Shelton, the executive director of the Attleboro Area Industrial Museum, Inc. provided Attleboro Patch with photographs for this article because “We’re happy to give you permission to use them as we want to get our collection out to the public.”