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During the latter part of the 19th century, Carrollton’s economy was booming with the burgeoning tobacco trade and riverboat traffic. As a main port of export for products heading south to New Orleans, Carrollton was able to reap the benefits of being a place where much money was changing hands. The entrepreneurial spirit inspired some to capitalize on the flood of money and goods by opening up shops, bars and places of entertainment. This led a member of the very enterprising Howe family, James Howe, to go into show business. Though it is not clear as to whether he started the Richland Opera House or purchased it, by 1905, he was the owner.
Dateline Carrollton: The Richland Opera House presents “Tom Thumb’s Wedding.” Excerpt from program: “Mr. and Mrs. Midget request your presence at the marriage of their daughter Lillie Putian to Mr. Tom Thumb. Friday evening, September Fifteenth, Nineteen Hundred and Five, at eight o’clock, Opera House, Carrollton, Kentucky. No presents accepted. Admission 35 and 25 cents.”
This program was found in a trunk tray amongst a rather large stash of old newspapers, pictures, and artifacts, acquired from the Howe estate auction several years back. Prior to this discovery, I had heard tantalizing stories from several local people that there was once an opera house in Carrollton.
Unfortunately, my research has turned up little, save an excerpt from Julius Cahn’s “Official Theatrical Guide, Containing Information of the Leading Theatres and Attractions in America” from 1902.
“Carrollton – Population 3,500. Richland Opera House. James Kinchelve, manager. Seats 1,000. Heated by steam and lighted by electricity. Patronage good. Scenery first class…Theatre second floor.”
As “talkies” became all the rage in Depression-era America, live shows gave way to films. Some time during the late 1920s to early 1930s, the Richland Opera House evolved into the Richland Theater. The original theater burned after the 1937 flood and was rebuilt. It was destroyed in another fire in the 1970s.
The next few decades would see the decline of the vaudeville acts that made the Richland so popular in its heyday. One local resident recalls being taken by her uncle in the 1940s to blackface minstrel shows. These performances used stereotypes and caricatures of minority groups as a major component of their theatrical production. Modern audiences would consider this type of production politically incorrect.
As we enter the current era, we find familiar names like Sam Simpson, Evelyn Welch, Nancy Jo Grobmyer, Sam Burgess, Deborah Garrett and many others who became famous and potentially infamous for their “Gong Show” performances.
From the late 1950s until his retirement in 1993, Sam Simpson, for whom the auditorium at Carroll County Middle School was named, directed numerous plays and musicals at the Carrollton High School and continued when it became the Carroll County High School.
During the 1970s and ’80s, he produced his “Fallies” in the fall, followed by a play or a musical in the spring, and another musical or play during summer school. He also worked with the Carrollton Players for some of their productions.
Following Simpson’s retirement, the torch was passed to Sam Burgess, who directed and produced many plays until his retirement in the late ’90s. Since his retirement, the Carroll County Schools still put on plays, but outside of the occasional Christmas production in local churches, there has been little community theater in recent years. That will hopefully change after Port William Production’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” at the end of this month.
Curtain is 6 p.m. Friday, Nov. 30, and Saturday, Dec. 1, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 2, in the CCMS auditorium.
We have cast more than 70 local people for the play. Tickets were sold this past weekend at several local banks. They now are on sale at Carrollton Office Supply on Fifth Street and at The News-Democrat office on Sixth Street until the end of the month.
Ben Collett is the president of the Port William Historical Society and resides in Carrollton.