1/5/2013 10:00:00 PM Days Past: History of the Elks Opera House from the ground up: Part I
Sharlot Hall Museum/Courtesy photo Laying of the cornerstone for the Elks Opera House and Lodge on East Gurley Street, April 3, 1904. The stone is shown being positioned next to the speakersí podium using a tripod pulley system.
By PARKER ANDERSON Special to the Courier
Many long-term Pres-cottonians have fond memories of movies and events in the auditorium of the Elks Theater and it has played an important role in local entertainment for nearly 108 years. Those familiar with its history know that it has been rocky at times, but the theater has proven itself to be a survivor and it is still with us when many other theaters of its age around the country have long since closed their doors and/or met with the wrecking ball.
In January of 1896, the small, but growing, town of Prescott saw the formation of a branch of the Elks Lodge, No. 330, B.P.O.E. For a few years, the members of the lodge held their meetings in various venues around town, but by 1900, they were looking to build a permanent lodge hall of their own. On Aug. 31 of that year, B. M. Belcher, acting as trustee for the Elks, purchased a 50-by-125 -foot lot on East Gurley Street for the purpose of erecting a lodge hall. They would later purchase more of the surrounding grounds as plans grew bigger.
The lodge had previously discussed and then abandoned ideas of adding an opera house to their hall, but architect J. R. Minor decided he could add one at a cost of only $15,000 more than the simple lodge hall would cost. Prescott had been without an entertainment venue of this sort since the Dake Opera House on Nob Hill had been bulldozed the year before.
Prescott Elks Lodge No. 330 renewed its interest in an opera house and took steps to start raising the extra money. After meetings with Prescott's business and civic leaders, it was decided to sell and subscribe stock in the building to raise the funds. Once this was accomplished, architect Minor drew up blueprints for the building, which were then put on public display at Dillon's Cigar Store and Smith's Meat Market, where an excited Prescott citizenry could look at them. The lodge took bids for construction and awarded the brickwork to C.H. Valentine for $9,983, and the stone contract went to Edwin Hall for $1,000. It was decided to use sandstone brick from - where else? - Prescott Sandstone Brick Company; 700,000 bricks were ordered along with 60 tons of gray granite.
Various delays hampered construction of the new Elks Lodge hall, but by February of 1904, construction workers were excavating the lot under the supervision of architect Minor. On April 3, the cornerstone for the Elks Opera House and lodge rooms was laid amid an imposing ceremony with speeches, oratory and music. Lodge members A.J. Herndon and T.G. Norris gave addresses. Various objects, including newspapers, lists of lodge members, trinkets, etc. were imbedded in the cornerstone (this was ceremoniously done quite often in those days at the construction of important new buildings). It was the most significant social event in Prescott in years.
Following the ceremony, construction went ahead full force. While the framework was going up, the lodge ordered 12 tons of theater scenery for $3,000 and spent another $3,000 for plush opera house seats from C.F. Weber & Co. in Los Angeles, who was also supplying seats for the First Congregational Church in Prescott. Prescott's two newspapers, the Prescott Courier and the Arizona Journal-Miner, breathlessly kept the public informed of the construction's progress every step of the way. The roof was to be finished with a new substance called Rubberile.
The construction went smoothly though there were some mishaps. On July 14, 1904, some scaffolding collapsed and two brick masons, Hollis Nicks and Estalono Candelaria, fell a considerable distance to the ground. Nicks suffered crushed and broken anklebones on one foot while Candelaria suffered a head cut and bruises. A few weeks later during a thunderstorm, lightning struck the north frame of the building, causing considerable damage.
By early February of 1905, the Elks Opera House was completed enough that the lodge invited newspaper reporters to tour the interior. Both the Courier and Journal-Miner wrote lengthy pieces about it. "Prescott's Present Pride and Index of the City to Be," screamed the headline of the Feb. 6, 1905, edition of the Courier. The new theater had eight boxseats and various ornamental bric-a-brac such as elks' heads protruding out of the walls. A clock above the proscenium was set permanently at exactly 11 o'clock, that time having particular significance in Elkdom. These decorations graced the theater for 40 years, when all of them would be taken out during extensive remodeling.
After setting the date for the grand opening of the brand new Elks Opera House for Feb. 20, 1905, the Elks Lodge began to search for a major opening attraction for the show that night. They wanted someone who could draw big audiences and fill the entire auditorium. How could little Prescott manage to at-tract someone like that?
Next week, Part II details the grand opening of the Elks Opera House 108 years ago!
Parker Anderson is a historian for the Elks Opera House and has recently written a book on its history, complete with many photos, that is available at the Sharlot Hall Museum Store.