In the period between 1880 and 1920, opera houses flourished in communities across South Carolina. Beginning in the 1880s, as the state recovered from the Civil War, opera houses provided live entertainment for citizens who were able to afford leisure activities. By 1915 there were opera houses in Columbia, Sumter, Greenville, Florence, Newberry, Darlington, Laurens, Marion, Abbeville, and Bishopville, among other communities.
Especially in the larger towns, opera houses were imposing, architecturally distinctive buildings with elaborate interiors. Newberry’s three-story brick opera house, featuring a bell tower, was constructed in 1882. Sumter’s 1893 opera house was a three-story, Richardson Romanesque stone structure with a one-hundred–foot clock tower. Columbia’s second opera house, built in 1900, was three stories with two towers. It had a large stage, concealed overhead machinery for curtains and scenery, an orchestra pit, spectator boxes, and two galleries. In smaller communities, opera houses were more modest and often located on the second floor of multi-purpose buildings. For example, the opera house in Laurens was situated above the city hall, and Marion’s opera house was on the second floor of a building that housed the courtroom, jail, and fire department on the first floor.
“Road shows” that traveled the country provided dramatic productions, musical comedies, operas, minstrel shows, and other live entertainment. Columbia’s opera house booked Broadway hits and stars such as Sarah Bernhardt, Ethel Barrymore, Lillian Russell, and Nat Goodwin. Even in a smaller community such as Abbeville, special trains brought theater patrons from nearby towns to see trav- eling shows such as the Klansman, Yankee Drummer, the Ziegfield Follies, or an escape artist. The Marion Opera House featured traveling theatrical companies as well as local talent.
By the 1930s the new sound movies had eclipsed live entertainment, and some of the opera houses converted to motion picture theaters. By 1941 South Carolina: A Guide to the Palmetto State reported, “Most of the old opera houses in the State have now been pre-empted for movie theatres.” In the decades after 1930 most of the opera houses in the state were demolished. A few survived, however, and in the last decades of the twentieth century several of them were restored, including the Abbeville Opera House, the Sumter Opera House, the Marion Opera House, and the Newberry Opera House.
National Register of Historic Places files. State Historic Preservation Office, South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia.