Thespian Hall, oldest theater still in use west of the Alleghenies, stands as a magnificent symbol of Boonville's determination to celebrate its cultural heritage and to preserve it for future generations. Despite at least two attempts to destroy it, Thespian Hall survives today under the protection of The National Register of Historic Places.
In 1838, a year before Boonville was incorporated, the first seeds of interest in theatrical entertainment were sown when the Thespian Society was organized. It was, according to an 1841 comment by the editor of the Boonville Register, "the first visible sign of improvement" toward making the town a rival of any community in the state with the exception of St. Louis. Boonville was considered by many to be destined to become the greatest city in Central Missouri - the westward point of civilization and culture.
The November 11, 1854 edition of the Boonville Weekly Observer carried the announcement of the Society's benefit performance, proceeds to be used "for the erection of an ornamental and useful building for the city on a lot 43'x180' on the northeast corner of Main and Vine Streets." The building plans dictated the use of the first floor of the building as a theater with the second floor designated as a meeting place for the Masonic and Odd Fellow lodges as well as a City Hall. The basement of the building was designed to house the Library and Reading Room.
The transition from the Thespian Society to the incorporated Boonville Library, Reading Room and Thespian Association was made on February 27, 1855. The Association then purchased the lot north and adjoining the corner lot they owned which expanded their frontage on Main Street to 86 feet. On July 25, 1855, five months after the incorporation of the Association, the corner stone of Thespian Hall was laid and construction began immediately on the 54'x100' structure. On July 3, 1857, just short of two years after laying the cornerstone, the Classic Greek Revival building was opened with a Grand Ball.
The events of the next 70 years shaped and reshaped history for Thespian Hall and the community. During the Civil War's Second Battle of Boonville, the Hall was used as a hospital and, at various time,s as a barracks by different army troops. The war years left the country weary and many social institutions and physical landmarks in ruins. The Boonville Library, Reading Room and Thespian Association did not survive the strife and was disbanded.
In 1869 another phase in the life of Thespian Hall began. It was in this twelfth year that some of Boonville's wealthy German residents, headed by Jacob F. Gmelich, leased the first floor of the building for a German Singing and Athletic Society, The Turn and Gesang Verein. The second floor was used as a meeting place for the Masonic Order while the basement housed an armory which later gave way to a skating rink. The rink accommodated several hundred skaters and had an office and skaters' dressing room.
By the turn of the century the building had lost its appeal and there was talk of demolishing Thespian Hall. It was at this time that Lon V. Stephens and his brother, W. Speed Stephens, rescued the structure and began the major remodeling that would turn it into an opera house. Under the direction of J.L. Howard, St. Louis architect specializing in theater design, the auditorium was enlarged with the first floor slanted, cutting into the basement area, to provide better viewing of the stage. A stagehouse was added at the rear of the original structure. There have been few structural changes made since 1901.
The Stephens Opera House opened October 5, 1901 and, during the next 11 years, was found to be a convenient stopping point between Kansas City and St. Louis for many Broadway hits. With its many decorative features, there was not a more elegant theater in the state. By 1912, however plays had lost their popularity and the progression from nickelodeon to modern motion pictures began.
For a brief period in 1937, Thespian Hall again faced threat of destruction because of the high costs of upkeep and operation. It was saved by a group of interested citizens who began the process of having it placed on The National Register of Historic Places - a goal finally reached in 1969. Movie house operations continued until 1975 at which time the building was acquired by The Friends of Historic Boonville through a gift from the Kemper Charitable Trusts, administered by R. Crosby Kemper. The members of this group are historic-minded citizens dedicated to the preservation and use of this Boonville landmark. Today, the Friends, with generous donations from the Kemper Foundations, continue to restore the building.
In order to make Thespian Hall a living, viable entity in the community, the Friends offer a full time community arts program which includes the annual summer festival of the performing arts, The Missouri River Festival of the Arts, Thespian Hall Tonight concerts and an Arts In Education program for students. The Hall is also used by a variety of community organizations and is home for the Boonville Community Theater.
Compiled by The Friends of Historic Boonville
For additional information write: Friends of Historic Boonville, PO Box 1776, Boonville, MO 65233, or e-mail the Boonville Chamber.
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