Did you know that the city once had an opera house? In fact, there were two. The Wilson Opera House was located within the Wilson Hotel on Main Street. The second one, the Columbia Opera House, was located on Center Street. Searching through the early Transcripts, it was learned, the opera house in the Wilson building performed a good number of operas and operettas. The Columbia Opera House however, was mainly a vaudeville hall which hosted plays and special events as well.
The story of the Columbia Opera House began with the formation of the Father Mathew Total Abstinence Society (FMTA) on May, 30, 1868 by Father Kiely in the vestry of St. Francis’ Church. Initially the society had about 20 members and they met at the church on a monthly basis. As its membership grew, it became clear that a new headquarters was needed. A larger building was rented on the corner of Center and Eagle Streets and for a while, it served the society well. As the year 1876 rolled around, the society had grown to about 125 members and had added a Cadet Company for the younger men in the city. In 1880, a Ladies’ Aid Society was formed and by 1889, with membership total slightly more than 300. At this point, it was time again to look for a more accommodating structure.
A plot of land was purchased on Center Street for $8,600 in 1889. After a fundraising effort, a new building was erected. On January 18, 1894, the FMTA formally dedicated the building as the Columbia Opera House.
Uses for the opera house by the FMTA included events held by its debating club, shows by the New City Minstrels, dances such as the Easter Monday Ball, and basketball games. The society also rented out their hall for touring vaudeville acts and other events, for example the Easter Hop given by the Drury Class of 1897, a stage show by London’s Andrew Seymour as the “World’s Greatest Mindreader,” the Boston Ladies Symphony Orchestra in October of 1897 and a play presented called “The Two Sergeants” by the Readsboro Dramatic Club to name a few.
At the turn of the 20th century, two new theaters were built in North Adams. First the Richmond Theater opened in September of 1900 and then in October of 1901, the Empire Theater was christened on Holden Street behind the Wilson House. Events at the Columbia Opera House began to trickle away from Center Street in favor of the new, more appealing venues. As the first decade moved along, the FMTA found it harder and harder to keep up with the building’s expenses. Coupled with that, membership numbers had also decreased. As a result, in September of 1910, the society voted at is monthly meeting to secure new quarters elsewhere and to put the opera house up for sale.
About a year later, the opera house was purchased by Rev. Fr. William Lattanzi, pastor of the St. Anthony Church. His intention was to use a portion of the structure for an Italian school for the children of the parish and rent out the rest of the building for events. However, that plan never came to fruition as the desire for a new church outweighed the need for a school.
In 1912, The Goldstein Brothers leased the building and proceeded to update its interior. In August of that year, it formerly opened as the Bijou Theater. The brothers concentrated on both comedic and dramatic plays which didn’t bring in the crowds they were hoping for, so in January 1915, they began hiring vaudeville acts in an attempt to bolster audience numbers. Unfortunately, this attempt failed. By September of the same year, they were looking for new buyers.
The building was eventually purchased by the House of Israel in 1920. On December 22, 1922, the group was incorporated as the United House of Israel and began using the Center Street structure full time as a synagogue.
Adapted from a story in Hoosac Trails, Volume XXXI Issue III (March 2022)