Dallas' First "Opera
House" Opened in 1873
Father of B. F.
Sala Built Playhouses in Texas From Galveston to Dallas
Knew Old Families
and Had Thrilling
Meetings With Noted Bandits of Early Days --
Dallas Fire Department Gave Lively
Exhibition With Old Hand Pump
BY W. S. ADAIR
B. F. SALA
(NOTE: portions of
the microfilmed text are illegible)
called Dallas my home since 1870," said B. F. Sala, 2502
Parnell street. "My father, who was in the theater
business, left Galveston in 1869 and followed the terminus of
the Houston & Texas Central Railroad from place to place
until it reached Corsicana, and on the way, built opera houses
at Navasota, Hearne, Bryan, Calvert, Kosse and Corsicana. Sanger
Bros. and Padgitt Bros. were in business at Navasota when I first
heard of those firms. When we were at Hearne, the International-Great
Northern Railroad was being built across the State in the direction
of Palestine, Col. Hoxie was general superintendent of that road.
"My father, who was an actor, scenic
artist and impresario, as well as a builder of opera houses,
opened theatres and gave performances all the way up from Galveston
to Dallas. We came from Corsicana in 1870, two years ahead
of the railroad, using a wagon for transportation. My father
built a dwelling in the woods on or near the present site of
the Union Passenger Station. Our neighbors were Henry and
Frank Ervay, Dr. J. W. Crowdus and the father of Tom, Dick and
Harry Nelms. I remember we spoke of our neighbor boys as
Tom, Dick and Harry. Two years later, when the railroad
arrived, we moved to Carter street, the swell quarter of the
town and lived near Alex and Philip Sanger, who, for a short
time after moving to Dallas, occupied the same house.
"In 1873, my father built a home,
a five-room house, at Main and Ervay, on the site of the present
Federal Building. A big creek ran where the Sumpter Building
is. But, all that locality was in the country then. The
nearest business house was Connor & Walker's drug store,
Main and Austin streets. The same year, the two-story building
on the northwest corner of Main and Austin streets was erected,
the second floor of which was for years the opera house of the
town. Joe Leonard, who ran a brickyard, manufactured the
brick and erected the building; J. S. Ballard did the carpenter
work and my father constructed the stage, painted the scenery
and opened the theater with a stock company. The first
attraction was 'The Sea of Ice,' a famous spectacle in those
days. A short time later, he put on the Big Four minstrels,
the big four being Barlow, Wilson, Primrose and West. The
Field Theater, on the south side of Main street, in the News
block, built by Tom Field, was opened with the Crisp Dramatic
Company, but I do not remember the date. I do remember,
though, that 'East Lynne' was the first play given there. John
English played Archibald Carlisle, George Campbell played Levenson,
Miss Cecelia Crisp, Lady Isabel; her sister, Jessie Crisp, played
Barbara Hare. My father was in the cast and I played the
child, and in the dying scene, Miss Crisp made me feel as if
I were really dying.
"At the request of the Swiss colony
here, my father put on the drama of 'William Tell,' with John
English in the title role; Charles Strang, as Geasler; my mother,
as Tell's wife, Emma, and I took the part of Tell's boy, Albert.
Mr. English was a wonderful shot and never failed to split
the apple. But, really the arrow went above the apple,
and the fruit was split with a wire pulled by a confederate behind
the curtain. I was, nevertheless, very uncomfortable all
the time, for just a few weeks before, I had seen Frank Frain
kill his wife by shooting an arrow into her skull at St. Louis.
For some time before this accident, I had been playing
Albert to Frain's Tell. This accident brought about an
immediate change in the presentation of this detail of the play.
Up to that time, the apple stunt had been the real thrill
of the play, which had a great run all over the country. But
now, the best marksmen became nervous, and no boy cared to be
the apple tree. The outcome was the wire trick. But,
Frain was a wonderful archer; no doubt, Robin Hood would have
welcomed him to Sherwood Forest.
"The Templeton Alliance Dramatic
Company was one of the earliest attractions at the Field Theater,
and 'Rip Van Winkle,' the opening play; John Templeton took the
part of Grechen, Rip's amiable wife. Their daughter, Fay, afterward
famous, and I, appeared as Lena and Heine, Rip's neglected children.
Other attractions at this playhouse were Lawrence Barrett,
in the 'Gladiator,' 'Richard III,' and 'Hamlet,' John McCullough
and Frederick Warde, in "Richard III," and other Shakespearean
plays; Tom Keene, supported by John English, in the 'Merchant
of Venice,' Charlotte Thompson, the great American actress, in
'Jane Eyre,' and other romantic dramas. The above will
serve as samples of the good things we had, in the way of amusements,
in this frontier town, back in the '70s.
Glimpses the Real Thing.
"But all this imitation hero business
was, to me, the merest moonshine, in comparison with the thrill
I derived from a glimpse or two of the real thing. As a
small boy, about 1874, I got a job in a cigar stand, run by a
Spaniard, on the east side of the courthouse square. One
day, a man, who immediately attracted my attention, rode up,
hitched his horse, and walked across to the courthouse. Presently,
he emerged from the courthouse and returned to his horse, where
he shook hands with a man, and after a hasty conversation with
him, mounted and hurried out of town. That was Cole Younger.
"While my father was building the
opera house at Denison for J. McDougal, he made me sleep on the
stage to watch the property. Late one night, Mr. McDougal brought
two men into the theater and told me to let them sleep on the
stage. At 4 o'clock in the morning, Mr. McDougal came
back, shook me out of my sleep, and told me to drive the two
men in his hack to Colbert's Ferry, on Red River, four miles
north of town. One of the men sat with me, and the other
occupied the back seat. When we reached the ferry, the
man who sat with me, said: 'Young man, do you know who I am?'
I said: 'No, sir.' Then, he put a stick of dynamite under
me, by saying: 'I am Jesse James,' and immediately added, 'This
is my brother, Frank.' He then handed me a brass cavalry
spur, saying: 'You have won your spur tonight.' In 1885,
when Frank James came to Dallas to live, he became my neighbor,
on Race street. I called on him at his home one night,
and, showing him the spur, which I had kept, and still keep,
asked him if he remembered it. 'Perfectly,' he said, and
added with emotion, 'that was the last time my brother was ever
Snappy Mounted Carrier.
"I was what you might call the outside,
or mounted, carrier of the Dallas Herald, when Mr. Swindell owned
the paper. My mount was an undersize prairie donkey. One
day, the paper carried great scare headlines over the sensation
that the first car over the new street railway line would start
from Main and Houston streets the following day. The paper
had previously announced that the car would be named for one
of the young ladies of Dallas. The Herald crowd put Miss
Alice Swindells, daughter of the publisher, forward as a candidate
for the [ ]ors, and our disappointment [was] great when the car
appeared [bear]ing the name of Miss Belle [ ], daughter of Capt.
G. M. [____], painted in big letters.
"The car was designed [to be] drawn
by two little mules, but, [for] some reason now unknown to me,
the first car was pulled by [an old] gray horse, owned by Captain
[_____]. One end of the road was at the courthouse, and
the other at Harwood street, but later, the track [was] laid
to the Houston & Texas Central Railroad crossing. The
beginning of traffic on the street car line [was] made the occasion
of a big celebration, the chief feature of which, was an exhibition
by the fire department. Responding to a [fire] alarm, coming
mainly from the [box] in front of the Crutchfield House, the
firemen played that the [old] house was in flames. They [opened]
the underground cistern at Jefferson and Main streets, and [started]
the pump, which was worked by a long handle, by six or eight
[men]. They achieved the amazing [feat] of throwing
a stream of water up [to] the sill of the second-story window
and received the plaudits of the assembled town and country.
W. C. Connor, chief of the department, directed the operations
of the firemen.
Old-Time Street Fakir.
- March 4, 1923, The
Dallas Morning News, p. 6, col. 5.
"During the '70s, a one-eyed [man]
sold medicine on the streets [in the] towns on the Houston &
Texas Central Railroad. He claimed to be an ex-Confederate
soldier, and wore a Confederate uniform. [Whoever] else he was,
he was a musician and a good judge of human nature, [also] a
tenor singer and banjo picker [and] had few equals. Some
days before the total eclipse of the sun in [ ], he landed in
Calvert, where his customers were negroes. He offered a
liniment guaranteed to straighten the hair of the negroes, and
at the same time, announced that darkness was about to come over
the [land] and would continue for forty days. He bought
up all the candles [the] merchants of Calvert had in [stock],
painted them, and sold them to the negroes at a dollar apiece,
to [be burned] during the time of the darkness, guaranteeing
that each candle would burn for forty days and nights, [at] the
end of which time, every [negro] who used the liniment would
have straight hair. A few minutes before the time of the
eclipse, he made [his] last talk, and closed by saying, 'darkness
now comes over the land.' The darkness came, all right,
and the fakir took advantage of it [to] get out of town.
"My father served in the Quartermaster's
Department of General Magruder's command in the Civil War. Before
entering the army, he moved his family to Brownsville, and I
was born in a tent at Brownsville, during the war. After
the war, we moved to Galveston, and lived there, until we started
north [with] the Houston & Texas Central Railroad."
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