The Original Rockford Nostalgic Website
In 1863 the Rockford post office was located on S. Main Street what was then the Holland Block. At that time there was no mail delivery and people living on the east side of the river were forced to walk to retrieve their mail. So great was the agitation that several prominent citizens talked of building the post office on West State Street. Finally Horace Brown came forward and said that if he could be assured of the post office he would build a structure to house it. This assurance was given and the construction was begun. When the building was completed Mrs. Smith, who was postmistress at the time, moved the office to the 100 block of West State Street where it remained for more than a decade, there were two other storefronts in the building. There had long been a need for a large hall and the second story of the building had been fitted up for this purpose, it had a seating capacity of nearly 1,000. Its proportions were 64 by 90 feet; architecturally it was plain, four walls, a small stage, limited dressing rooms and a small gallery. Wood bottom chairs and settees of the same material were the only seats provided for the patrons and upon occasions when the hall was wanted for some swell social function these would be removed and the floor cleared for the dancers or for the booths of bazaars and fairs. It was sure enough a “sweat box” when the big sheet iron stoves were piping hot and the house was jammed to the orchestra pit on a winter’s night and the windows were corked down tight. The first public meeting was on November 17, 1864 when the hall was formally opened, when a ratification of the election of Abraham Lincoln to his second term as president of the United States was held. Most were away to war but there was a rousing meeting nevertheless and several prominent men in the city and soldiers on leave of absence were present. The addresses were of an intensely patriotic nature, judging from the reports that had been preserved, and prayers were also offered for the boys on the battlefield. Dr. J. P. Norman, the original successful amusement manager in Rockford leased the space in the Horace Brown Building in January 1865, and from that day forward it was the principal entertainment venue in Rockford until the Grand Opera House was opened.
A Brown's Hall Handbill from July 1, 1869
Dr. Norman brought many the first class attractions of the day here. Among the great actors who were applauded in Brown’s Hall were Janauschek, Laura Keene, Maggie Mitchell, Kate Claxton, J. K. Emmett, Sr., Lawrence Barrett, John Dillon, John T Raymond, Sol Smith Russell, Joe Murphy, Alice Oates, Milton Nobles and Neil Burgess. In those days came Nate Salisbury with his Troubadours, Roland Reed’s Arabian Nights, the Harrison’s in Photos, Collier’s Union Square Company, and McKee Rankin’s The Danites. What a galaxy of stars and when is added the great singers, Emma Abbott, and Adelaide Phillips, and musicians, Ole Bull and Remenyi, it must be noted that Rockford was even then a musical and dramatic center. Among the figures of national life he spoke from the rostrum of Brown’s Hall were Wendell Phillips, Horace Greeley, “Brick” Pomeroy, Josiah G. Holland, John B. Gough, Robert Imgersoll and Henry Ward Beecher. Around 1880 Dr. Norman endeavored to get Mr. Brown to remodel it in Opera House style, but Mr. Brown shrewdly saw that it was only a question of a few years when a theater would be built here and he would be out his improvements. His judgment was correct; for within a few months a stock company was organized in the Grand Opera House was built. The last performance at Brown's Hall was held on November 8, 1881 by the "Jollities". After The Grand Opera House opened Brown’s Hall was used by the local militia as an armory until its fine location suggested the possibility to Mr. Charles Von Weise of the opening of a modern department store and the Horace Brown building was remodeled for just such a purpose.
The Grand Opera House (also known as Rockford Opera House) was located at 113-117 North Wyman Street. This 1500 seat Oriental themed opera house was the fruit of the Rockford Opera Association. Directors of the opera association were Levi Rhoades, George S. Haskell, John H. Sherratt, C. C. Jones, Thomas Butler, R. H. Tinker and Thomas Lawler. On November 6, 1880 a meeting was held to incorporate the Rockford Opera House and land was purchased and a building constructed for such a purpose. In May Dr. J. P. Norman leased the opera house and it was informally opened on November 12, 1881 by the Rockford Singers presenting The Pirates of Penzance. The grand opening occurred on November 14 with Clara Louise Kellogg as the entertainer. The opera house would be host to a wide variety of events and some of the performers over the years would include Susan B. Anthony, Edwin Booth, Ethel Barrymore, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, Joe Jefferson, Eddie Foy and many others. Dr. Norman died May 14, 1883 and C. C. Jones succeeded him until the house was sold to O. P. Trahern. The opera house would close in 1917 as newer venues entered the scene. The Grand would serve out its final years as a silent picture and burlesque house. It was demolished in 1927.
Interior View of Rockford Opera House
Grand Opera House advertising Bought & Paid For that had a Rockford performance on April 9, 1913
Courtesy of Gary W. Anderson Architects
The three Spafford brothers would come to Rockford in 1839, the eldest son Charles H. Spafford was a lawyer by trade but coming to Rockford changed his plans in life. Mr. Spafford performed a conspicuous part in the development of the city. He held the offices of postmaster, city clerk and recorder. He was president of the Kenosha & Rockford Railroad Company. Charles in company with his brother John, and John Hall built the Metropolitan Hall Block at 404 - 418 East State Street in 1856. The stores and offices were owned separately but the hall was held in common. It was one of Rockford’s first entertainment venues and remained active as such until it was overshadowed by Brown's Hall and the Opera House in popularity. The Metropolitan Building still exists and was renovated into condos with businesses on the ground floor by Urban Equity Properties and houses Wired Café and Woodfire Brick Oven Pizza as ground floor tenants.
Mendelssohn Hall, 513-515 West State Street. Built in 1889 by George Briggs in remembrance of his late wife who was an active member of the club. This was the scene of many dances and other social and musical functions. The main floor of the building housed retail. The Mendelssohn Club, started by Mrs. Clara Blanche Starr (the wife of Rockford businessman Chandler Starr) entertained a group of Rockford ladies who loved music, especially the music of composer Felix Mendelssohn, in her home on North Main Street. That day, the Mendelssohn Club of Rockford was born, with Mrs. Starr as its first president. Incorporated in 1889 the club would grow from a group of local music lovers performing music for each other into a community music organization. They would occupy the second floor of this building until 1909 when they would move into the newly built Chick Block, 216-226 North Main Street. Mendelssohn Hall would be torn down in the mid-1980's for urban renewal. The Rockford Mass Transit District's downtown passenger transfer facility, offices and garage are now located on this site.
The Mendelssohn Club, the oldest, continuous community music organization of its kind in the United States, would again move around 1926 to the above location at 317-319 Mulberry Street. In 1946 they would again change locations to 215-217 Chestnut Street. After meeting in so many different places over the years the Mendelssohn Club began construction on its own building at 415 North Church Street in 1950. In 1952, the building was dedicated and the first concert presented in its 220-seat auditorium. In 2005, Mendelssohn purchased the historic Emerson House at 420 North Main Street. The name of the organization was changed to Mendelssohn Performing Arts Center in 2006 and is still very active promoting music and the arts for the community. The Mendelssohn Club, the oldest, continuous community music organization of its kind in the United States, would again move around 1926 to the above location at 317-319 Mulberry Street. In 1946 they would again change locations to 215-217 Chestnut Street. After meeting in so many different places over the years the Mendelssohn Club began construction on its own building at 415 North Church Street in 1950. In 1952, the building was dedicated and the first concert presented in its 220-seat auditorium. In 2005, Mendelssohn purchased the historic Emerson House at 420 North Main Street. The name of the organization was changed to Mendelssohn Performing Arts Center in 2006 and is still very active promoting music and the arts for the community.
Germania Hall located at 123 South Madison Street. The 11,000 square foot "Pioneer Hall" was built in 1892 and included a ballroom and bar. The Rockford Germania Society took over the building in 1901 and renamed it Germania Hall. The club installed the first automated bowling alley in Rockford in 1903. The Rockford Germania Society would remain in this building until 1970. In 1971 the Rockford Rescue Mission would take over the building and remain there until 1999 when they built a new facility, "Hope Place" at 715 West State Street where they still remain. This building is still in use.
After negotiating for several years, Arthur E. Aldrich would purchase a parcel of land at 913–923 West State Street near the Kent Creek Bridge from Dr. E. C. Dunn in March 1908 for the purpose of building a coliseum. The contract for building the Coliseum was awarded to the General Engineering and Construction Company of Rockford. The 200 by 80 foot building that could house 4,000 persons featured heavy construction with support beams installed as to allow for an optimized open floor space and had a concrete base covered by a maple hardwood floor capable of sustaining as much weight as is possible to be placed on it.
Built primarily as a roller skating rink it was designed to also host conventions of all kinds, trade shows, concerts, sporting events, dances and many other uses. On opening night over 2,000 people attended and denoted plainly that seekers of clean entertainment in Rockford were eager for just such a place. The building had smaller rooms along the sides for small functions and included a lunch stand. It had a lighting system that consisted of 180 decorated lights of red, white and blue, alternately arranged and 20 Tungsten lamps, which at the time were new to the city. The total cost of the project amounted to around $25,000.
The first automobile show held in Rockford took place at the Coliseum at 921 West State Street in March 1910 under guidance of the Rockford Motorists Association which formed in January of that year. Every one of the local dealers, as well as several from other places exhibited their wares. There were 21 brands of cars and almost an equal number of accessory firms being in attendance. Some of the cars represented were Flanders, Velie, Oakdale, Oldsmobile, Randolph, Rambler, Overland, Wisco, Marmon, Ford, Hudson, Stoddard-Dayton, Buick, and more. Motorcycles were displayed by Thor and Excelsior, and a variety of accessory dealers also had exhibits. The show turned out to be a success in both a financial and attendance sense. The Coliseum was also home to the Made in Rockford exhibition for many years. Eventually the venue was eclipsed in popularity by the new Inglaterra Ballroom and the larger Tebala Shrine Temple auditorium. The now largely idled building was used as a theater from 1919 to 1920. The building was sold to the Rockford Catholic Diocese for use by St. Thomas High School for use as a gymnasium, assembly hall and classrooms. After the closing of St. Thomas High School the Coliseum met its fate in 1962 and was demolished.
Designed by local architect and author Wybe J. Van der Meer with the Ross P. Beckstrom Company as general contractors the Inglaterra Ballroom opened in 1918 as a "dime a dance" hall. Owned by Charles O. Brenig, Ross P. Beckstrom and Shell R. Smith, the building was eighty two feet six inches wide by one hundred fifty six feet deep and was located at 115 North Second Street. In the period of time between World War I and World War II, people flocked to the Inglaterra Ballroom to dance to the music played by Big Bands led by notable band leaders such as the likes of Lawrence Welk, Laurie’s Orchestra and Jimmy Dorsey. The large hall was also home to many exhibitions. The Inglaterra shared the downtown dance business with the Winter Garden at 120 South Second Street, a nickel a dance hall, and Waltzingers which was a dine-dance-floorshow establishment at 112 West State Street.
In 1934 Charles Scandroli and Clarence Pierce would take over ownership of the Inglaterra Ballroom and convert it into a dining and dancing establishment named the Casa Loma. In the 1930's a national roller skating craze started to emerge, in 1938 the business was purchased by Otto M. Fuchs.
Fuchs extensively remodeled the building and changed the focus from dancing to roller skating. The Inglaterra Ballroom would be renamed to the Ing Roller Skating Palace, which became a year-round-six-day-a-week mainstay. The Ing featured a 72 by 128 foot main skating rink and a smaller beginner’s rink. For many years it stood as a popular place for people to go and was a hangout most weekend nights. Fuchs would sell the business in the late 1950's it was sold again to David and Katherine Machek who purchased the business in 1963 and operated it for the next thirty years. In 1993 they would sell it to Chuck Rankin of Chicago. Eventually the focus would once again change back to dancing for a few years before the property was sold to a nearby auto dealership and demolished in 2005 ending over 87 years of entertainment and recreation in Rockford.
Rockford's first vaudeville house, The Bijou Theater was founded by A. J. Shimp in 1904 in the 300 block of East State Street. It proved so successful that in 1906 he would open another vaudeville house, the 964 seat Orpheum Theater at 118 North Main Street in a converted livery stable that was built in 1860. The building housed a nickelodeon that had been operating there since 1901 prior to Shimps purchase. There was ground retail space and the upper floors of the building were also leased to other businesses including a jeweler and optician, pharmacy and the Sample Shoe Shop.
In 1908 the Orpheum Theater underwent extensive remodeling from January until September including exterior and interior improvements and a rebuilt roof as well.
In April 1915 the Orpheum Theater would once again undergo extensive remodeling during the summer months. Some of the changes included a new front, tearing out of the balcony, enlarging the seating capacity of the main floor and general redecoration. The plans were drawn up by George Rapp of Chicago, who also drew the plans for the Palace Theater. In May Willard Van Matre, Jr. and James D. Hurst of the Schumann Piano Company would take out a lease on the Orpheum for two years with an option of three additional years. The theater would reopen as a moving picture house in the fall.
The Orpheum would become part of the Orpheum Circuit, started in 1886 and incorporated in 1919. Orpheum Circuit would book the entertainment for a number of theaters across the country and eventually assumed ownership of many of them.
The Orpheum would be sold to Willard N. Van Matre Jr. and James D. Hurst in 1914 and continue as a vaudeville house until 1915 when it was eclipsed in popularity by the new Palace Theater across Main Street. It would then show motion pictures exclusively until its demise in 1937. Notice in the above picture that the livery stable has been replaced with a retail store and the streets are paved with bricks. The Orpheum Theater was razed in 1937 and a S. H. Kress 5 to 25 cent store was built on the former Orpheum site.
In September 1908 P. Gianakopulos would open a theater at 122 West State Street in a former remodeled saloon just east of the Rockford & Interurban Railway west side waiting station. Named the Dreamland Theater, the intimate 250 seat theater featured a marble front and just above, and on either side of the entrance, were two crescent moons, each with a white robed nymph reclining in the moon and beckoning with one hand as a gentle hint to passerby’s to come and view the wonders within. The interior lighting highlighted the nicely appointed interior. It was one of the earliest movie houses in Rockford to show motion picture films exclusively. On April 1, 1909 Anthony Lang took over ownership of the Dreamland Theater. Originally a tailor by trade, Lang had previously operated a tailoring merchant shop here and conducted a chain of such establishments having stores at Sterling, Dixon, Aurora and Geneva which he sold after buying the theater. In 1920 the veteran theater owner would also take possession of the Colonial Theater which was located at 307 West State Street just west of Ashton’s Department Store. Sadly on June 19, 1926, Mr. Lang lost a battle with diabetes and passed away.
The theater was left to Lang’s daughter Rose and her husband Charles who operated both the Dreamland and Colonial Theaters after Anthony’s death. They would later build the Capitol Theater on South Main Street. The Dreamland Theater was sold in April 1930 to the Olson & Ebann Jewelry store who remodeled the old theater building. In remodeling the store instead of tearing out the old stage and screen of the Dreamland, they installed a firewall to block it off from the rest of the store. In June 1955 the remaining decrepit forty foot section of the old Dreamland Theater behind the jewelry store was razed at the request of the Rockford Fire Department. The Olson & Ebann Jewelry woukld later become Rowland’s Jewelers.
The Majestic Theater Building was located at 115-117 North Church Street and was built around 1886 by a syndicate of Rockford businessmen. It was originally used as a roller skating rink but in 1890 four years after its construction, it was taken over by the Snyder and Warren Company and used for a “carriage repository.” In 1908 the Sherwood, Baldwin and McWilliams Company who operated theaters in Madison and Racine, Wisconsin signed a long term lease on the building for use as a theater. Extensive remodeling was undertaken to convert the building into a modern fireproof vaudeville house. It featured a large stage and a commodious orchestra pit able to accommodate a large orchestra. There were four dressing rooms at stage level and an equal number under the stage. The ceiling was of pressed steel tinted in pleasing colors and adding to the fireproof qualities of the building. There were plenty of exits with four doors on the south side of the building, three being from the main portion and one from the stage. Three double width doors opened on the Church Street front, with leather orchestra chairs large enough for comfort and finely fitted. They would number close to 1,000. The ushers and other employees were uniformed. the Majestic Theater and for many years, with the Grand Opera House and Orpheum Theater, was one of the city’s leading show houses. The theater would close its doors around 1915 and the building was used as a car dealership and later storage until 1936 when the building was demolished and the empty lot used for parking. The Armory Block 119-125 North Church Street was built in 1908 by attorney Bradford A. Knight and located just north of the Majestic Theater. The armory was leased to World War One era Illinois National Guard Companies H & K. It was also home for Rockford High School Basketball games. The Armory Block underwent extensive remodeling and housed retailer Sears, Roebuck & Company from 1928 until 1956 when Sears would move to a new store on North Main Street.
The red arrow is pointing to the Majestic Theater as it appeared in 1912
The Colonial Theater was located at 307 West State Street just west of Ashton’s Department Store in a building formerly occupied by the President Café. The interior of the building was completely remodeled with a structural addition of thirty feet added on to the rear of the building to accommodate the theater. It was owned and operated by the Colonial Theater Company who also operated theaters in Quincy, Peoria, Galesburg, Decatur, Bloomington, Kewanee and Joliet, Illinois along with two other locations in Ottumwa and Clinton, Iowa. Rockford would mark the thirteenth theater in the chain. The theater would open to the public on April 9, 1910; admission for each show was 5 cents. Several managers were employed by the theater including E. A. Shultz, Bert Gibbons, J. M. Rugless, and John Sammons. Sammons would become owner of the theater and sold it to Anderson & Johnson in January of 1912. A. C. Nelson would assume ownership in 1913. In 1920 veteran theater owner Anthony Lang would also take possession of the Colonial Theater. On June 19, 1926 Mr. Lang passed away and ownership passed into the hands of John H. Camlin. In October 1927 Camlin would have the building housing the Colonial Theater and Mutual Clothing House razed, where he replaced it with a modern two story steel structure that housed a national five and dime store.
Courtesy of Crystal Ball
Casper Johnson, a Fourteenth Avenue grocer and his brother Bert, who had been employed at the government arsenal at Rock Island for the past sixteen years, would construct a building in the 1000 block of Fourteenth Avenue between Sixth and Seventh Streets in the predominately Swedish neighborhood for a theater. The small neighborhood theater would open on December 22, 1914 with the new house having a seating capacity of 245. This being the only theater in the neighborhood the patronage was exceptionally good.
The brothers would build another building across the street 41 feet by 80 feet in size from the current theater and open a larger theater with a seating capacity of 600. The new Family Theater would open at 1025 Fourteenth Avenue on May 23, 1917. The old theater was remodeled into retail space. In 1925 the theater would add a new Bartola organ which was installed in the theater loft and manufactured by the Barton Organ Company of Oshkosh, Wisconsin is installed in the theater loft. It had four sets of pipes and full orchestral equipment. The theater also added a new canopy to the building, installed a plate glass enclosure in the front, and inside changes included more lavatories and an up to date ventilation system. A slight increase in the number of seats were added bringing the capacity to 620. Fourteenth Avenue would be renamed to Broadway in 1926. The theater continued to operate under the Family Theater name until 1960 when the theater was sold.
The Crest Theater would open in the former Family Theater building in 1960. The theater would close in 1964 and the building was converted for other uses.
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