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Talkies Silenced the Vaudeville Star

smyrna opera house

(sung to the tune of “Video Killed the Radio Star”)

Every state in America has a story just like the story of the Smyrna, DE Opera House—

The Smyrna Opera House, from its 1878 construction and for over a half-century thereafter, played a remarkable role in the life of Smyrna residents. The center functioned both as an entertainment venue and as a vibrant neighborhood hub.

The opera house regularly resonated with the melodies of a resident orchestra by 1888. As the 20th century dawned, community activities in the hall continued to proliferate. In 1900, the auditorium hosted presidential aspirant William Jennings Bryant. That same year, locals Wilhelmina Wells, Helen Lewis, and Bertha Price vied for the coveted Demorest Gold Medal in a fashion design contest held within the opera house’s storied walls.

The opera house saw a wealth of theatrical productions, such as the Dover Singing Society’s comic opera “Reuben Scraggs” in 1903. Two years and hundreds of events later, the Lyric Glee Club put on a benefit for the Teacher’s Institute. And the Guy Brothers Famous Minstrels wrapped up the decade with their vibrant traveling show.

Smyrna High School regularly held their commencement exercises in the spacious hall, filling the chamber with youthful energy. 1910 valedictorian Katherine Mannon waxed poetic on the “Quest of the Holy Grail.” Ah, the timeless academic tradition of newly minted graduates speechifying in pursuit of lofty ambitions.

The advent of Hollywood in the mid-1910s brought a subtle transformation to the role of the opera house. The hall transitioned from being a community hub to becoming an entertainment venue, showcasing photoplays like “Island of Regeneration” and “The Clause in the Constitution.”

By the early 1920s, participatory gatherings, from meetings of the Smyrna Community League to religious services conducted by the Seventh Day Adventists, became increasingly less common. Playhouse use for both live events and movie screenings was about to change.

Modern movie theaters had sprung up within reach of downtown Smyrna by the following decade, driving fierce competition. Recognizing the need to adapt, the Smyrna Town Council and the Smyrna Businessmen’s Association convened in December 1930 to explore potential renovations that would transform the opera house into a more contemporary facility.

Competitor Benjamin Shindler controlled the Strand Theatre on nearby W. Commerce St. Shindler had already been moving ahead on renovating his building to provide a fresh cinematic experience. His speed forced the opera house into a defensive position. The Town Council picked up the pace on modernizing the opera house complex.

Shindler completed his updates in November 1931, building two movie theatres in the space where there had been one.

A month later the Como Theatre or “People’s Theatre” opened in the opera house building. The venue, “for many years the pride of Smyrna people” said the Evening Journal, had been thoroughly upgraded. “A new velour curtain has taken the place of the old paper curtain.” The opening featured Marx Brothers’ picture “Monkey Business.” Como owners poached a Mr. Stewart, who had been manager at the Strand.

Competitive county wide pressure on downtown theatres was mounting. The family car, once a luxury, was becoming more common. That gave moviegoers options. Dover’s Capitol Theatre (1923) was a 20-minute drive one way; Middletown’s The Everett Theatre (1922) was 20 minutes in the other direction.

And post-war, suburban movie houses, larger and more numerous, sprang up in the open fields surrounding Smyrna. Unconstrained by cramped downtown lots, they could offer larger screens, more seating, more parking, and bigger lobbies with wider snack options.

For several more years the Como Theatre soldiered on. Then, in September 1936, an arsonist attacked offices directly below the Como theatre. Smoke damage closed the movie house. But with little incentive to invest in a stagnating downtown during a Depression battered economy, the owners walked away rather than rebuild. For the next 12 years, the once elegant space lay dormant.

The “grand old lady” traced a 58-year arc of evolution. Her inevitable ending echoes the challenges faced by many such downtown entertainment establishments.

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