Section: Features

Woodward is the oldest standing theater of its kind in U.S.

Woodward is the oldest standing theater of its kind in U.S.

During its run from 1857 until 1903, the Woodward Opera House never once hosted an opera. It did, however, host musical performances — including barbershop quartets, pianists and the Snowden Family Band — as well as plays and lectures on topics ranging from the marvels of electricity to the case for abolition.

In the 19th century, The newly constructed railway station made Mount Vernon a hotspot in Ohio for culture. At times the floors of the Woodward would sag so badly under the weight of its attendees that it would block the front doors of the shops downstairs, meaning the shopkeepers would have to wait late into the night, until the end of the performance, to close shop, according to Frederick Lorey’s A History of Knox County, Ohio 1876-1976.

But when the motion picture came to Mount Vernon, movies put the Woodward Opera House out of business. The Opera House remained closed until the 1980s, when Professor Emeritus of Sociology Howard Sacks took an interest in its potential as a tool for education.

“I opened it up, swept up about a half-century of pigeon dung, strung some lights up and gave tours as part of the Dan Emmett festival,” Sacks said. The Dan Emmett Music and Arts Festival is a street fair celebrating folk music which takes place in downtown Mount Vernon every August. It is named after Dan Emmett, a controversial entertainer from Mount Vernon who is credited with writing the song “Dixie” and founding the first blackface minstrel troupe.

Since the Opera House was first reopened to the public, various groups have made efforts to renovate the building. The Knox Partnership for Arts and Culture made the first move toward renovation, asking that the city purchase the building. Although this plan never came to fruition, the newly founded Woodward Development Corporation (WDC) purchased the Opera House a year later. In 2000, local historian Peter Dickson identified it as the oldest standing theater of its kind in the country. Emily Briggs ’02, a history major, hosted tours of the Opera House. She also gathered together a team of students, who “archaeologically analyzed” the paint chips and shards of glass strewn around the building, as she stated in an interview with the Collegian.

Since then, the WDC has been raising funds and hiring contractors to bring the Opera House back to its original condition.

At the time of its run during the 19th century, the Woodward was essential to the vitality of Mount Vernon’s downtown, and that is what it hopes to be again.

In the 1980s, after the development of big box stores on Coshocton Avenue, the novelty stores around the public square in Mount Vernon disappeared one by one. There has been some recovery since then, but there are still not nearly as many businesses downtown as there were 50 years ago. Sacks is optimistic that the Woodward will give the area the final push it needs. “It’s one of those ‘if you build it, they will come’ sort of things,” he said. “So far the indications are very positive. Having been a student of the local community for 40 years, I think Mount Vernon has finally turned the corner.”

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