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Craddock: Fancy opera house went out in a blaze

Sam R. Thrasher said his new Grand Opera House would be as impressive as any vaudeville house patrons might find between Shreveport and Dallas.

In December 1912, construction began on what originally was to be called the Century Theater. As Thrasher’s building took shape, he renamed it the Grand. And The Dallas Morning News said it would be “counted among the handsomest buildings in the city.

The $35,000 two-story brick structure on Longview’s Tyler Street featured marble furnishings and a seating capacity of 1,200. That made it one of East Texas’ largest opera houses.

The second floor featured some 30 boarding rooms to “relieve Longview’s housing shortage,” according to the Longview Times-Clarion.

Thrasher was born in 1873 in Bastrop, arriving in Longview in 1892. A Texas and Pacific Railway conductor, he married Minnie Bell Smith two years later. He became a farmer and served two terms (1902-1904) as Gregg County sheriff before his opera house project.

‘High-Class’

There would be competition. Longview already had an opera house when Thrasher built the Grand. It was John Tyson Smith’s Upstairs Opera House at Bank and Fredonia streets. Phillip Pegues had owned an earlier opera house. Judge Smith (he was Gregg County judge 1887-1898) had bought out Pegues’ operation in 1902.

In addition to Smith’s competing entertainment hall, by 1912 Longview boasted a couple of storefront silent-movie houses. According to Times-Clarion advertisements, those included the Summer Theater (“Moving Pictures and Vaudeville Every Night Except Sundays”) and the Alcazar Theater (“High-Class Motion Pictures”).

Thrasher hoped to bring more top-rate vaudeville and minstrel shows to the city. Apparently there was a real need to improve local entertainment.

This is the Times-Clarion’s February 1911 review of a touring troupe:

“Hester’s tent show last night proved to be the ‘bummiest’ aggregation of would-be performers that ever disgraced our fair city. The only redeeming feature about the outfit was the roper. Those who attended denied being there.”

Unfortunately, the Grand Opera House wasn’t completed when the Dallas Symphony Orchestra came to town in January 1913. However, the new facility was well received when Thrasher’s house opened to the public in May that year.

It stayed busy with traveling troupes and local productions. But alas, the Grand’s history in Longview proved to be all too brief.

Curtain call

On Jan. 4, 1915, the Dallas paper reported: “Fire, which began about 4 o’clock this afternoon, destroyed the Grand Opera House … and damaged the Masonic Temple. A number of persons who occupied rooms in the opera house building were slightly injured while being taken out of the burning building … No one was seriously injured.”

The only thing left of the Grand was its foundation.

It was barely a blip in the city’s history, a grand hall for entertainment that flamed out much too quickly. As a result, the Grand Opera House is all but forgotten.

On Jan. 29, 1915 — three weeks after the fire — construction began on a successor to the Grand. However, Longview businessman Frank T. Rembert was constructing the new building. The $75,000 Rembert Theater went up on Cotton Street, next door to Rembert’s Palace Hotel.

Rembert said his new building would feature “a cooling plant for summer and heating plant for winter.”

Out of the opera-house business, Thrasher concentrated on his ranching and banking interests.

The Thrashers had a 220-acre estate on McCann Road. In a grove of hickory and oak trees stood the white brick colonial home they called Willesley Hall.

Sam Thrasher, who had operated his Grand Opera House only 21 months, died in June 1954 at the age of 81.

— Van “Conflagration” Craddock’s latest book is “East Texas Tales, Book 2,” available at Barron’s and the Gregg County Historical Museum. His column appears Sunday. Email vancraddock@sbcglobal.net .

Today's Bible verse

“And they were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’”

Isaiah 6:3

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