CATES OPERA HOUSE ON DECATUR TOWN SQUARE
The late 19th century ushered in the Progressive Era in Texas. The state was on the verge of an oil boom and new citizens, full of optimism, were flocking to new opportunities. Cities were growing ten times faster than the countryside. Fort Worth was a shipping point for the cattle drive making it one of the top five cities in Texas and causing tremendous growth for surrounding areas. As the towns grew, culture began to mature due to a desire of the newly wealthy to support and promote artists, musicians, and writers. Opera houses began to spring up in towns all over Texas to satisfy the need for social outings. Born out of a desire to foster daughter Ada’s interests in classical music and his love of the theater, Charles D. Cates opened the Cates Opera House on East Main just off the square in what was originally a dry goods store. On the evening of December 4, 1893, women dressed in brocades, silks and velvets along with gentlemen adorned in top hats drew up to the two-story stone building in horse-drawn carriages in anticipation of “good, clean fun.” Coal oil lamps glittered, and a full balcony known as a “roost” seated the overflowing crowd. A new and amazing special effect, colored lighting, was produced by burning metallic powders in a pan hidden on the stage. A hand painted drop curtain with a European lake scene hid surprises to come. The performance of the night was the famous production of “Skipped by the Light of the Moon.” The Wise County Messenger described the theater going experience as “worthy and innocent amusement that keeps people in a healthy state of mind, content with their lot.”
Thanks to improved transportation across the U.S. traveling shows became a big industry. A touring company would perform for a week presenting variety shows in Dallas and Fort Worth. Decatur, because of its proximity to the two bustling cities, would be included on the tour giving it the benefit of headlining performances. Being in the country did not deter Decaturites from enjoying a fun night out. The Cates Opera House presented its audiences with plays such as “The Count of Monte Cristo,” “Pygmalion & Galatea” and “Lady Macbeth. “ Plays were especially well attended during Reunion. While the goal of Mr. Cates was to present culture to his community, the Opera House was used for many events other than theater. Young people dances, as well as balls to celebrate local marriages, were held on the premises. Occasionally churches like the Presbyterian Church would hold monthly services at the location. Benefits were organized to support local lodges. In 1902, on the evening of George Washington’s birthday, the Owl Club presented a play honoring the life of the great American hero. Participants were dressed in colonial garb, and ticket holders were treated to a booth selling punch and candy and delighted by two beautiful gypsies telling fortunes. Fifty dollars was raised to purchase books for the club’s library. There were boxing contests and vivid mock bull fights. For the price of a few cents, theatergoers could be transported to another country or time. One particular performance of the “Execution of Marie Antoinette” featured a guillotine, Marie’s headless body and oozing blood and gore. The Cates Opera House took great pleasure in featuring local talent, and the town loved to show off! In 1894 the ladies of the Episcopal Church held a performance to warm applause. The town turned out in droves in 1884 to witness the first appearance of the Decatur Amateur Comedy Company for the purpose of purchasing a hook and ladder truck. One of the largest Decatur audiences ever was for “The Pioneers” a three-act play depicting life on the frontier following the Civil War. Twenty local ladies and gentlemen including Cliff Cates, CV Terrell, Floyd M. Kenny, William Renshaw, Will Terrell and Mary Cates played parts, and the proceeds went toward the debt incurred from publishing the Old Settlers History in Wise County. Eighty dollars was raised. It was a big hit! In 1900 a band concert under the direction of Professor Koch showed off the talents of BB Sellars on the coronet, Mrs. CH Smith on the violin and singers Ada Cates and Edna Earhart. Many felt the community should have supported the efforts of their talented inhabitants more. Lecture series, which were popular inspirational talks in the late 1800’s, were presented to educate the audience. The Opera House hosted the Gaylord Illustrated Lectures in 1888 and “America’s Uncrowned Queen” in 1895 was billed as the finest lectures ever given in Decatur. Vaudeville shows including hypnotists, Tyrolean yodelers, and novelty whistlers were hugely popular. In 1905 the Lyceum Stock Company from New York City who employed the most prominent actors and produced the most notable plays of the time brought with it a full complement of actors, sets, musicians, crew and publicists to present “A Hoosier Romance.” In 1906 the season opener enjoyed a sizeable crowd for “The Cowboy’s Girls.” Other memorable shows from this season included “Dora Thorne” hailed as the best play in Texas that season and “Them Dreadful Twins” presented by Richard & Pringles Georgia Minstrels which was an African American group who performed plantation songs and skits and helped launch the careers of several Jazz and Blues performers. In 1907 “The Banker’s Child” was guaranteed a good show or your money back! In 1908 Downs the Magician, a self-taught illusionist hailed as the youngest ever on record presented memorable sleight of hand and coin tricks. He is still admired among today’s magicians.
Despite a major renovation in 1908 including all new scenery painted by famous scenic artist Frank M. White in hopes of increasing ticket sales, the Cates Opera House would not survive. One of the last shows in 1911 “Dan Cupid” featured an entire chorus of beautiful girls in full evening dress. In 1913 the building became the ice cream parlor for the San La Roy restaurant. In August of 1913, the building was dismantled, and Lillard Milling Company purchased the lot of rock. The city hoped to make the plot of land a city park.