Tupelo has led Mississippi throughout her history and in so many ways. The arts and entertainment venues in the city have long drawn people from the region into the All-America City, even back to the 19th century when, in 1887, Capt. John Triplett built the Tupelo Opera House.
For nearly a generation, folks paid their money – 35 cents to $1.50 per seat – to enjoy national, regional and local artists in the 900-seat theatre, located on Troy Street. The Jackson Ledger proclaimed the Tupelo Opera House as having the largest stage in the South, perfect for myriad productions.
During the early 20th century, R.H. Mullens served as manager. Tickets could be purchased at the opera house or through various businesses, including McLeran’s Ice Cream Co. At one point, The Okolona Messenger urged its readers to take the passenger train at 6:30 p.m. for shows in Tupelo. They could return home by midnight. The cost? $1.50.
Various programs, including a Tupelo Graded School graduation, took place on the stage and, most of the time, people packed the seats. Newspapers from all over Mississippi, Kansas, Tennessee and sometimes Texas would post reviews of shows.
“Dolly Denton’s Musical Maidens” appeared on the Tupelo stage several times. The Tupelo Journal on Jan. 27, 1905, hailed the show as, “pretty girls and high-class vaudeville.” But other newspapers in Mississippi called the performances “sad,” and “raucous.” The Corinthian went so far as to write that people left the theater during the performance because they were embarrassed by the “burlesque nature” of the performance. One must wonder exactly what happened on the stage.
A highlight for operagoers was the 1907 performance of “Babes in Toyland” – eons before Walt Disney brought it to the Silver Screen in 1961. An American operetta, Herbert Hugo composed the music and Glenn MacDonough wrote the libretto in 1903. The Okolona Messenger called it the “greatest and most musical opera of the season.”
Although it survived for only 42 performances on Broadway, “The Rosary, produced by Edward Rowland and Edwin Clifford, enjoyed great reviews and packed audiences. The play told the story about a couple in New York, who had their Catholic faith tested through a series of ordeals and returned to their faith. Good seats for this one cost $1.50 – one of the rare times ticket prices shot up so high.
You might laugh at that price, but consider, the average annual income in the United States of America was $520. Tupelo and the surrounding area began rebounding from several years of rock-bottom cotton prices about that time with the development of the Tupelo Cotton Mill and, later, a fertilizer factory and an ice plant addition to the cotton oil company. Yet with all that, the money for entertainment was dear to many families.
One of the funniest stories to come out of the Tupelo Opera House originated with Hoyle Dobbs, who wrote for the Daily Journal in the 1950s. He recalled a young George F. Maynard (before he became mayor of Tupelo) on stage. It seems Maynard had to die on stage. He did so with great dramatic energy, and his wig flew off his head and over the floodlamps into the laps of some of the audience.
Dobbs indicated the Tupelo Opera House fell into disrepair. We cannot find any written evidence of what happened – we have heard it burned or was abandoned. If you know and have something we can cite as an authority, please let us know.