A history of Tibbits Opera House

Tibbits Opera House in Coldwater, Mich., began as an idea art gallery owner H.C. Lewis proposed to Barton S. Tibbits, mayor of Coldwater, according to www.tibbits.org. Although the two men planned to fund and build the opera house, Lewis backed out. Tibbits decided to continue with the plans, spending $25,000 to build the theater.

Tibbits Opera House had its opening night Sept. 21, 1882. The theater boasted leather-covered doors, red Brussels carpet, grand opera chairs and a large chandelier under a painted dome. The first performance was "Maid of Arran," but The Coldwater Republican raved more about the opera house than about the performance, saying "the song and dance might have been omitted with advantage."

A variety of other acts appeared in the opera house, including "Faust," "Uncle Tom's Cabin," "Richard the III," Buffalo Bill and his cowboys, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Unfortunately, sporadic attendance took a financial toll on Tibbits, who sold the opera house in 1885 to Joseph Henning, a German saloon keeper, for $13,000—a little more than half the original cost.

Featured entertainment during Henning's time included wrestling and boxing matches, conventions, marionette shows, camel rides and high school graduation ceremonies. His daughter, Huldah, managed the theater but had to sign her father's name when doing business because many acts were resistant to a female manager.

Huldah married John T. Jackson, who represented a traveling theatrical group. Jackson worked at the theater redesigning scenery mechanisms, moving girders to add wing space, adding a sprinkler system and steel fire curtain, and updating the available electrical current; this may have helped the theater survive while other theaters of that era were destroyed by fire.

Dennis and Estella Vanes bought the opera house in 1919 and used it to show movies. When William J. Schulte bought it in 1934, he officially turned it into a movie theater and covered the opera house's "gingerbread" façade with a flat front. The theater began to decline and was vacant by 1954.

During the late 1950s, local thespians and singers collected donations and negotiated a land contract with Schulte to reopen the opera house with live theater.

In 1963, the Tibbits Opera Foundation was formally organized and Larry Carrico was hired as manager. Under his management, the opera house was updated. It was repapered, had its curtain replaced, had the ceiling replastered and painted, had new seats installed and had the basement excavated.

During the years, many famous entertainers have performed at Tibbits Opera House, including P.T. Barnum, The Glenn Miller Orchestra, Bob Newhart, Mickey Rooney and Jeff Daniels. Currently, the opera house is busy all year with professional productions, children's theater, Christmas shows, concerts and community theater, among other events.

This Web exclusive information is a supplement to A historic performance.