Pete Zizka



Willimantic citizens in the first part of the twentieth century were great fans of live entertainment programs. “Movie houses” were just starting to catch on but their offerings were no match for live performances such as revues, balls, vaudeville shows and minstrels. Willimantic was fortunate to have two wonderful venues for entertainment. The earliest one was Franklin Hall which was rebuilt in 1869 after a disastrous fire razed the original building.  Historian Tom Beardsley says, ”The Hall was used  frequently by the Montgomery Hose dramatic club, whose members were almost entirely Irish born, and therefore presented many Irish dramas on the Franklin Hall stage. Beginning in 1890, the Thread City cyclers formed an amateur dramatic group, and performed their famed Thanksgiving Day minstrel shows in the Hall. The ladies auxiliary to Willimantic's ancient Order of Hibernians also produced an annual St. Patrick's Day performance. Windham born actor Charles Abbe trod the Hall's boards before he went onto national stage fame, and appearances in early silent movies.” The auditorium was the favorite place for the local fire companies to hold balls and social events. In October 1886, the Excelsior Hook and Ladder company held a social evening there, and on New Year's Eve, 1886, the Alert Hose Company held a masquerade ball in the Hall. The Chronicle reported that, "the floor of Franklin Hall was densely crowded with dancers and the galleries were well filled with spectators. Foreman James Haggerty and Miss Julia Haggerty led the grand march. The spectators enjoyed a fine scene from the gallery, and are willing to wager that no other town of the same size can boast of our equal in feminine beauty." A ‘bounteous’ turkey supper followed. The music was provided by the Loomer Opera House orchestra, and George L. Wheeler, ‘did the prompting in his usual felicitous style.’ “  Once the Loomer Opera House was built, many of the city’s organizations moved their events to the massive new building which seated 1,100 people. It was famous for its large stage, excellent acoustics, and was a favorite venue for touring companies, members of which always lodged at the nearby Hooker House Hotel. The Knights of Columbus, the Loyal Order of Moose, the Ancient Order of Hibernians and even the local National Guard Company put on shows and the Opera House became home to the Alert Hose Company’s annual minstrels. This week’s photo shows  a March, 1908 minstrel show being performed at the Loomer Opera House. Performers were all members of the Alert Hose Company. A newspaper article says that the theater was packed, the show was “better than ever”, and “the audience was large and appreciative “. One of the songs sung by all the performers was for the grand finale of the first part of the show and was titled, “When Our Firemen Face Their Foe”. It was written in 1907 as a tribute to the New York City Fire Department . But the words of the refrain apply to the firefighters of every generation and so in tribute to them, here are the words. “ When our firemen face their foe, With its angry flames aglow, Each heart there must be brave, There are homes that they must save. A fireman not a single fear must know, Heroes brave on land and sea, Guard our country faithfully. Heroes who risk their lives, For our little ones and wives, When our firemen face their foe”..


                                       Click on photo for larger version




<<HOME>>                    <<back to Historical Articles index>>