From Martin’s Opera House to the Grand Theatre
Martin’s Opera House featured an opulent interior and spacious stage. Later renamed Grand Theatre, a fire destroyed the building but not the spirit
Lavish costumes, enchanting actors, riveting music, and scripts to suit almost every audience, the theatre was a highlight of entertainment in the late 1800s in Canada. The residents of Kingston, Ontario yearned for a larger stage and more seating. Two small theatres filled the needs of some, but bigger productions passed Kingston over for bigger theatres. William Martin and his son came to the rescue by opening the elegant and luxurious Martin’s Opera House in downtown Kingston on January 6, 1879.
Designed by John Power and Sons
Before construction began, Martin Jr. toured North America to examine fine theatres and their features. Architects John Power and Sons were hired to draw up plans for the new entertainment building. John Power was an English immigrant who arrived in Canada in 1846 when he was about 30 years of age. His classic architecture is renowned in the Kingston region for beauty and longevity.
The plans devised by Power for the 110-foot by 64-foot building made use of stone quarried in the local area. Acoustics and visibility a problem for many theatres, the opera house design was superior in sound and viewing quality. All seats were privy to the softest sounds on stage and each seat held a good view of the stage – not an easy accomplishment. Safety was a primary concern, especially considering the always-lurking threat of fire. The Power design included seven doorways for audiences to exit the theatre, four of them a generous five feet wide.
Martin’s Opera House Seating for 1,100
With a seating capacity of 1,100 plus space for more, the Martin’s Opera House was able to host large performances. Maroon leather folding seats with gilt iron were fastened to the floor, and each seat was given a number. Lower and upper boxes held the expensive seats, the chairs behind the orchestra and in the balcony were lower priced, and the gallery seats were the least costly. Seating prices for the opening night production of “Rosedale” ranged from $8 down to 50 cents. Initially high, ticket prices were lowered for later productions, according to Erdmute Waldhauer in “Grand Theatre, 1879-1979” (Kingston 1979).
The interior of the theatre was opulent, the eyes drawn to a magnificently frescoed arch. Looking up, a wide dome, 26-feet in diameter, rose eight feet above the 35-foot ceiling. The auditorium was lit “by a sunlight containing one hundred burners,” noted Waldhauer, the lighting on a frame “suspended from the centre of the dome.” Gas lamps along the walls enhanced the illumination. The enormous drop curtain rolled up and down by windlass, the fabric itself a piece of art. A detailed painting of a small town was revealed when the curtain was down. Created by the brushes and imagination of W.H. Hersey, the background scenery was also painted on curtains that were raised and lowered.
Original Canadian Opera
“Leo, the Royal Cadet” opened at Martin’s Opera House on July 11, 1889. The original Canadian opera was written by Kingstonians Oscar F. Telgmann and George F. Cameron, both prominent in
music. Completing the Kingston performance dates, “Leo, the Royal Cadet” toured Ontario and appeared in northern New York. During the summer break of 1889, the theatre was renovated, adorned with new frescoes, updated with electricity and reupholstered seats. With the renovations came a new name: the Grand Opera House.
Fire in the Grand Opera House
Ten years later, the well-grounded fears that kept people awake at night and often caused panic burst to life. The Grand Opera House caught fire. Bright flares of the inferno lit up the late night sky on December 6, 1898, catching the attention of fire fighters dousing a blaze elsewhere. The structure was speedily devoured by the hot, hungry flames, leaving little but cinders and ashes.
Upon several years of searching for the right property, arguments over finances, and fundraising, the Grand was rebuilt on its original property. The new Grand Opera House opened on January 15, 1902.
Kingston’s Grand Theatre, a Jewel
Later changing the name to the Grand Theatre, the City of Kingston purchased the theatre in 1962. Undergoing modernizations and several major renovations, Kingston’s jewel “houses the very best in touring music, dance and theatre performances, as well as the talented work of our local producers and presenters,” noted “History of the Grand Theatre” by the City of Kingston. The Baby Grand Studio is a smaller theatre located within the Grand; a venue for “local developing theatre artists and unique, avant-garde and innovative performances of other disciplines.”
From Martin’s Opera House to the Grand Theatre, Kingston’s audiences continue to thrill to enchanting performances in historical charm and grace.
- Waldhauer, Erdmute, “Grand Theatre, 1879-1979,” Kingston, 1979
- “History of the Grand Theatre,” City of Kingston Accessed February 1, 2012
- Beharriel, Patricia, “Oscar Telgmann,” The Canadian Encyclopedia Accessed February 1, 2012
This article first appeared on Suite101.com on February 2, 2012. (C) Susanna McLeod