In preparing a presentation for the Fenton's brown-bag lunch talk about Jamestown theaters, I came across a program for a benefit performance of "Ben-Hur." The finance committee of the Woman's Christian Association, what we call W.C.A., directed the presentation. It is billed as a "Spectacular Pantomime." It was performed at the Allen's Opera House, where the current Lucille Ball Little Theatre stands, on May 17-19. There is no year.
I looked through the program. It is full of local advertisements, as theater programs are today. The cast list caught my eye. Listed second and third in the major players are Mr. J. Niven Hegeman and Mr. R.E. Fenton. Further on, lesser cast members are Mrs. Albert Gilbert Jr, and Miss Elizabeth F. Hegeman. They are all Fenton family members. The Hegemans are Governor Fenton's grandchildren; Mrs. Gilbert is the governor's daughter, mother to the Hegeman children from her first marriage; and Mr. R.E. Fenton is the governor's only son.
What was the year? It had to be after The Women's Christian Association was chartered in May of 1885. After Mrs. Gilbert became Mrs. Gilbert in 1883. Before Mr. R.E. Fenton died: March 25, 1895. And within the years The Allen's Opera House operated, December 1881 to the fall of 1898. So the date had to be after May 1885 and before 1895.
The cast list for a production of “Ben Hur” at Allen’s Opera House in Jamestown includes many familiar names, including R.E. Fenton.
When was "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ" published? After the novel's publication in 1880, the author Lew Wallace was inundated with requests to dramatize it. He refused, because he did not want to portray Christ as a man, or be irreverent in any way, especially on stage. A number of independent amateur performers wanted to develop pantomime and ballet representations of the novel's story. Producers David W. Cox and Walter C. Clark persuaded Wallace to sign an agreement in 1888 to form "The Ben-Hur Tableaux Production Agency." This set precedence. Future novelists and their publishing companies could strongly guard their copyright and control future artistic treatments of the basic work. Wallace scripted the Cox and Clark libretto (script) and shared in the profits for the next nine years. In the past, authors had lent their artistic property for dramatization and lost out on all compensation and control.
This brings the date to between 1888 and 1895. There are many advertisers in the program so I thought if I could find a change of address or the advertiser going out of business in the city directories, then I narrow the year down to a two-year period. The program has an extra cover designed to blend in with the main cover. It has advertisers on it too, maybe late submissions or the larger cost spaces. The first advertiser is J.H. Kaiser, jeweler and optician, at 115 Main St. Talk about lucky. Kaiser is not listed in the 1890-91 directory, but is listed in the 1892-93 directory. Therefore, the fundraiser happened in 1892 or 1893. Because I do not know when the directory was printed, I can't pinpoint the year any closer.
The program is filled with many prominent Jamestown names. They are on the steering committee, the auxiliary that assisted the steering committee, in the cast and listed as chaperones for the young ladies and girls in the cast. The young men and boys were unsupervised. Interesting. Some of the familiar names are Tew, Bradshaw, Bailey, Aldrich, Jones, Vandergrift, Cheney, Allen, Georgi, Carnahan, Gifford, Hazeltine, Parkhurst, Melhuish and Post. There are 138 names in the cast and 10 chaperones.
The Hometown History column is presented by the Fenton History Center and The Post-Journal. Each Friday, a distinct item from the Fenton History Center collections or archival special collections will be featured. Learn about your hometown history through parts of its past.
If one of the items featured brings back some memories or brings up a question, please contact the Fenton History Center at 664-6256 or firstname.lastname@example.org to share your memory or get an answer to your question.
The Fenton History Center's summer exhibit is "From Stage to Talkies: Jamestown's Theaters". It opens May 19, with a special preview and talk on May 18 from 4 to 6 p.m. The Ben-Hur program will surely be on exhibit.
The purpose of the Fenton History Center is to gather and teach about southern Chautauqua County's history through artifacts, ephemeral and oral histories, and other pieces of the past.
Visit www.fentonhistorycenter.org for more information on upcoming events.
If you would like to donate to the collections or support the work of the Fenton History Center, call 664-6256 or visit the center at 67 Washington St., just south of the Washington Street