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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




(NOTE: portions of the microfilmed text are illegible)

    "I have 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 in Texas.'

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.
    "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."

- March 4, 1923, The Dallas Morning News, p. 6, col. 5.
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