Centennial Hall – Visalia’s First Playhouse Uncovered
It doesn’t happen often, but occasionally there is a historical discovery that shakes things up – one that significantly adds to our understanding of local history and makes even the most disinterested person take notice. One of these finds recently took place. It was the discovery of a large brick building – one that for well over a century stood in plain sight, but for the last few decades has been hiding a secret under a layer of sheet metal. The important revelation happened when the 142-year-old structure had its metal mask stripped away, exposing it as Centennial Hall, Visalia’s first theater.
It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of Centennial Hall in Visalia’s past. It was built in 1876 specifically as a theater and was part of a serious building boom going on in the town of about 1,000 people. The country’s centennial year seemed to spark a building craze in town with the impressive three-story courthouse and the lavish Palace Hotel both opening in the same year.
The building was the brainchild of wealthy, civic-minded businessman Elias Jacob. He believed that the town needed a modern venue to host traveling troupes, local stage programs and shows. Up to that time, a few circuit-riding entertainers would pass through Visalia and perform in makeshift buildings, such as fraternal halls or public spaces, none of which were designed for theatrical events. That haphazard reality made it difficult to attract top entertainment to town.
In early 1876, Jacob broke ground on a large lot on the west side of North Court Street by the alley between Main and Center streets. On Aug. 31, 1876, a dedication ball and banquet were held at his new building called Centennial Hall, a name he chose in honor of the nation’s 100th birthday.
The theater itself was on the second floor of the two-story building. The ground level spaces were reserved for retail and offices. The theater could seat about 200, and the ceiling was high enough to allow a balcony. An outside stairway on the north side of the building was the entrance.
The new building was a big draw. One of the first traveling entertainers to perform was a blind violinist named Professor J. M. Wood. Wood generally traveled with a small entourage, but once in town, he recruited local talent to be part of his show, which always delighted audiences. His popular show was held on Jan. 29, 1877, with a ticket price of 50 cents.
Probably the most popular show was General Tom Thumb and his wife, Lavinia. Tom, whose real name was Charles Sherwood Stratten, got his start in show business thanks to the famous P. T. Barnum. The 40-inch-tall, 70-pound little person had been taught by the famed showman to dance, mime, sing and impersonate well-known people. On July 17, 1877, the general wowed the Visalia audience when he and his wife played to “exceedingly large audiences.”
Traveling entertainers by the score appeared on the stage at the hall, but not all were strangers to Visalia. In July 1879, Visalia native Eleanor “Nellie” Calhoun returned after a decade away. As a small child, Nellie had moved with her family to Kern County and now she was a 17-year-old student at San Jose Normal School. She loved acting and was good at it, so she returned for a couple of shows with her friend, Lois Lawrey, a very talented pianist. Nellie impressed the crowd with her acting. A local newspaper reporter in attendance wrote, “If she follows the stage as a profession, we bespeak her a bright future.” And the reporter was right. Nellie Calhoun went on to became a well-known and respected international actress.
Visalians appreciated good entertainment at the hall, but not all the performers met expectations. Nina Larowe and Anna Livingstone offered a dramatic reading program for two evenings. The ladies read from the books of Shakespeare and Tennyson to a small crowd the first night, but the second night, no one was in the audience.
Obviously, Centennial Hall was a popular venue for traveling and local entertainment, but by the late 1880s, the town had nearly tripled in size and shows were becoming more and more elaborate. The small theater could not keep up. Criticisms of the dated venue became common and even Thomas Nast, the lecturer, made a derogatory comment in March 1888 when he saw a bat flying in the theater. He interrupted his lecture and quipped, “Well, bats are naturally fond of old ruins.”
But, fortunately, plans were well underway for the new 1,000-seat Armory Hall at Acequia Street and Court. On April 24, 1889, the new venue held its grand opening. The last official entertainment group at Centennial Hall was the Pawnee Indian Medicine Company, which had scheduled a series of shows at Centennial Hall, the first set for April 23. They packed the hall the first night, but abruptly cancelled the other shows and joined the celebration in the new Armory Hall.
When Centennial Hall as a theater went dark, the building continued to accommodate other businesses. The second story became the offices for the Tulare Times newspaper. The downstairs spaces were home to many enterprises, including a bicycle shop, Locey Undertaking Parlor, Wells Fargo Office, Askin Plumbing and the U.S. Land Office. The name Centennial Hall stuck to the building well into the 20th century.
I believe that during the 1960s, the owner of the Centennial Hall building and the adjoining one to the north believed that the buildings needed a face-lift, so sheet metal was placed over the front to cover the old stucco and brick.
When Robert and Sabrina Shahan recently bought the buildings, they decided to remove the metal siding. On Nov. 12, 2017, the siding came down revealing a surprise – the 1876 date brick at the top.
For many years, I have known the site to be the location of the famous theater, but the exposure of the 1876 date brick was the “smoking gun” evidence I needed to know for sure that this was the original Centennial Hall building.
The Shahans have big plans. Retail spaces will be on the ground floor and studio apartments on the second. By the way, their remodeled buildings will be called “Centennial Suites.”