March/April 2014 – Dothan Opera House
Dothan’s grand opera house
In the time before cinemas, the Dothan Opera House brought culture and performing arts to the people of Dothan.
In 1908, Dothan was a small, bustling town of 7,116 people. The city’s mayor at the time, Buck Baker, was a successful and wealthy businessman who recognized that the growing city needed to construct a new municipal government building to house all of the city’s services. He also saw an opportunity to make the building more than just a new city hall.
Buck often traveled by railroad to distant cities such as Detroit and Chicago where he enjoyed attending opera performances. As he was an observant man, it didn’t take him long to see that vaudeville troupes and opera companies traveled frequently between the northern cities and the warmer climate of Florida, which gave him an idea. Since many trains passed right through Dothan on their way to Miami, He knew that if he could get them to stop in Dothan, the people of this area would be able to enjoy vaudeville and other performing arts just as people in the larger northern cities did.
What better way to get them to stop than to give them a grand opera house in which they could perform and make a few extra dollars on their way? A hundred years ago, there were no architects in the area, so Mayor Baker sketched the plans for the city hall and its auditorium and had an architect in Atlanta draw the actual blue prints. He then hired local contractors to construct the new building, which was an enormous undertaking for the city at the time.
When the city hall finally opened on October 8, 1915, the people of Dothan found that this auditorium that Mayor Buck had talked about was really so much more. It was a beautiful Opera House with near-perfect acoustics for the time and comfortable seats for 589 people. On the third floor of the new City Hall/Opera House were the Dothan Library and a meeting room for the city council, just as promised. The second floor was home to the Chamber of Commerce and the first floor housed the various other city departments.
While it is called the Dothan Opera House, few actual operas played there. Traveling professional musicians, singing groups and orchestras, such as the Atlanta and the New Orleans Symphonies, were also booked at the Opera House for the entertainment of the people of Dothan.
As someone at the time once said, “Mayor Baker brought culture to the area before many citizens of the area even knew the meaning of the word.” Those must certainly have been exciting times as the people of the area saw their first professional vaudeville acts and listened to traveling musicians and singers from faraway cities. These were once-in-a-lifetime experiences that most of Dothan’s early citizens could only dream about prior to the building of the Dothan Opera House.
The popularity of the Opera House as a place to see the latest national entertainment acts lasted only about ten years though. Movie theaters began to open in Dothan in the 1920s, at first showing silent films, then later the “talkies,” which later exploded in popularity as the traditional movies we know today. The numbers of people who got dressed in their best clothes to attend concerts and traveling plays at the opera house soon dwindled, leaving only a few who attended local plays, singing groups and the occasional school graduation. By the 1950s, the building was mainly used for routine city business instead of performing arts.
After the Dothan Civic Center was built in 1974, the Dothan Opera House was used for storage of city records, but even though the curtains seemed closed on the Opera House stage, it wasn’t the end of the Grand Old Lady. On December 16, 1977, the Dothan Opera House was placed on the prestigious National Register of Historic Places, ensuring that the majestic old building would never be destroyed.
A group called “Friends of the Opera House” was formed and, through their loyalty and influence, a new place was found to store the city records and a renovation began. The beautiful elevator was restored, new carpet was laid, gracious seats were installed and the lobby was restored to its former elegance. The “Grand Old Lady” is holding her head high these days as she watches boys and girls from schools in Dothan and the surrounding areas march across her stage to receive their diplomas. Local groups are again using the beautiful stage for plays, musicals and concerts and the Dothan Opera House shines in the glory of it all.