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Entertainment

A BRIEF HISTORY OF PIONEER ENTERTAINMENT IN BEAUMONT, TEXAS

By W. T. Block

Reprinted from Frontier Tales of The Texas-Louisiana Borderlands (MSS, Nederland: 1988 in Lamar and Tyrrell Library), pp. 210-219.

On the Southeast Texas frontier, the key to recreation, religion, and public entertainment was social isolation, a product of the sparse populations. Companionship versus loneliness welcomed all strangers, forced impious farmers into the church house, and reduced to insignificance the dogmatic differences between the Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian denominations.

For many farm wives, the extents of their worlds were the rail fences which surrounded them. And envied was the one whose husband received a jury summons or subpoena, for either could result in a weekend of dancing, church attendance, and feminine association in Woodville, Liberty, Beaumont, Orange, Jasper, or Sabine Pass.

Even voting was less an example of civic responsibility than an excuse for going to town. And the gathering of noisy throngs to witness public executions at the courthouse should be judged as less an expression of a populace devoid of sentiment than of one starved for companionship. That same craving for human relationships led audiences to tolerate mediocre acting and scratchy fiddling, for imperfect performances were better than no performances at all.

During the antebellum years, little is known about public entertainment in Southeast Texas except that it was all of the "home-grown" variety. No railroads existed east of Orange, Texas, before April, 1880, that might carry traveling troupes to the Beaumont region. And the railroad to Houston was not reopened permanently until 1876.

Insofar as Beaumont is concerned, two factors are certain. The quarterly district and county court sessions were the principal instruments for congregating rural citizens at the county seat, and as a result, the dances at the court house on the preceding Saturday nights. Also, as opposed to some neighboring communities in Southeast Texas, there was no church resistance to ballroom dancing in Beaumont in 1860.

The late Judge Tom Russell once published an interesting account, the identity of the subject personage still uncertain. A new settler arrived in Beaumont on a Saturday before the Civil War. Upon hearing violin refrains emanating from the court house that evening, the stranger entered and discovered a young fiddler, whose rosiny notes guided the toes of the square dancers. The next morning, the violinist was again at the court house, superintending the Sunday school. At 11 o'clock, he mounted an improvised pulpit and delivered the sermon. Displaying still a fourth role, it was the fiddler, as chief justice (now county judge), who called the Jefferson County Court to order on Monday morning.

During a distrist court weekend in December, 1858, Henry R. Green, an early Beaumont school teacher, reported that there was "dancing on hand everywhere," and that he was "sicker of eggnog than the whale was of Jonah."

In January, 1859, James C. Clelland taught a dancing school at Beaumont which "the citizens are attending tri-weekly." In November, 1860, William Harris styled himself in the Beaumont "Banner" as a "teacher of fashionable dances," offering a series of lessons to Beaumont gentlemen for $10.

Public entertainment seems to have regressed during the Civil War decade, probably because the prosecution of the war was all-important between 1861-1865, and during the Reconstruction epoch, the retention of body and soul in one breathing container took precedence over personal pleasure.

Nevertheless, there was some effort to entertain Confederate soldiers in the area as well as the public. In December, 1863, Sabine Pass' "Military Corps Dramatique" presented an "entertainment, which was well-patronized, and the audience seemed to be well pleased."

In August, 1864, Beaumont's citizens built a soldiers' home or center, known as "Cottage House." The following New Year's Eve, Surgeon E. A. Pye of the Confederate Hospital wrote that "there was a great ball in town tonight for the benefit of the soldiers' home." And a week earlier, on Christmas Eve, he partook "of an eggnog at Cottage House," where "some half dozen gentlemen and two or three ladies had a game of whist." Although Federal army troops still occupied Beaumont, Orange, and Sabine Pass until 1876, the area's economy and social scene appear to have regained their pre-war eminence by 1872. Gala weddings were back in vogue, each accompanied by a night of dancing. A Beaumont newspaper of 1873 reported a concert at the court house, composed entirely of local talent. Vocal selections by the "Virginia Rosebud" - (identity unknown, but possibly from the Baldwin or Alexander families) - "elicited rapturous applause." The other featured vocalist was Prof. J. C. Clelland, the same dance master who conducted the school in 1859.

A copy of the "Neches Valley News" of 1872 carried a full column of Beaumont social activities, chief among them being a party and dance at R. H. Leonard's residence; a reception, dance, and wedding, officiated by the Rev. J. F. Pipkin; and a union school picnic. At each affair, the string duo of Jack M. Caswell, an early steamboatman, and A. J. D. Sapp, a Beaumont merchant, presented the musical accompaniment. Caswell and Sapp furnished the music for most of Beaumont's social events throughout the Reconstruction years.

In 1873, John E. Jirou organized the Beaumont Brass Band, also known as the Lumbermen's Brass Band, which, except for short periods of disbandment, was a special feature of Beaumont's entertainment scene until long after 1900. The first surviving record of that band dates from Beaumont's Centennial celebration on July 4, 1876. As of December, 1895, the Beaumont City Band was directed by Prof. F. J. Cutter, with the following members, namely: Lee Blanchette, Ed Eastham, Jim Minter, Sid Levy, Oscar Hille, Abe Solinsky, Byron Wiess, P. Green, Dorr Chapin, Ray Wiess, and C. G. Conn.

A Galveston newspaper of 1884 mentioned another instrumental group in conjunction with a popular pasttime which reached Beaumont a century ago, as follows:

"The Baseball Club returned (to Beaumont) from Village Mills, flushed with victory in a contest with the local nine of that place, and headed by Prof. Hicks' Cornet Band, paraded the principal streets."

Three months later, Hicks' band led the Pearl Street parade when the Beaumont Fire Company and the Wiess Hook and Ladder Company laid the cornerstone of the city's first fire engine house in September, 1884. A third group of Beaumont musicians, the Lumbermen's Silver Cornet Band, directed by Mr. A. Ashold, was entertaining periodically at the opera house in 1892. During the 1880s-1890s, two neighboring bands also performed at many Beaumont social events. The First Regimental Band of Orange played for many dances here. The Kountze Brass Band furnished the music for Beaumont's Leap Year Ball of January, 1892. This group, comprised of the employees of the Sunset Sawmill at Olive, two miles north of Kountze, was organized by Sam Barnett and G. A. Sternenberg in 1890, and played frequently in Beaumont during the succeeding decade.

Until 1877, most dances, concerts, and church services were conducted in the court house. In 1879-1880, the Temperance Hall and the Blanchette Hall were completed, the latter serving as the unofficial opera house for the next year. In June, 1881, when the Blanchette Hall was closed for remodeling, a new opera house was built. It was purchased the following August by Henry Solinsky, who immediately left for the North in search of vaudeville talent. In October, 1881, Wolf Bluestein, Solinsky's business partner, opened the Bluestein Opera House on the second floor of the partners' new brick building at Tevis and Forsythe Streets. It remained in use for the next two years.

In October, 1883, John B. Goodhue built the Crosby Opera House in a frame structure in the Goodhue block opposite the Southern Pacific depot at Laurel and Park Streets. It had a seating capacity of 1,100, equal to about forty percent of Beaumont's 1883 population, and Henry Herring was its first manager. In September, 1886, a Galveston newspaper article recorded that; "The Crosby Opera House at this place {Beaumont} is being enlarged and repaired, and fitted up with entirely new scenery. The building and scenic display will be unsurpassed by any other opera house in the state."

In June, 1889, just in time for the East Texas Deep Water Convention which met there, the same proprietor completed the Goodhue Opera House in a "beautiful new brick building," adjacent to the old opera structure. It remained the city's social and cultural center until W. W. Kyle opened the new Kyle Opera House in October, 1901.

Beaumont's earliest "heritage" festival was its Grand Tournament and Strawberry Festival, begun in 1880 and repeated annually during the month of June. The last record of this event in the writer's possession occurred in 1886, but since few newspapers of that era survive today, it is possible that the celebration continued for three or four years afterward.

The 1881 "Grand Tournament and Strawberry Festival" was sponsored by the Ladies' Guild, the Council of Temperance, and the trustees of Magnolia Cemetery, and occurred on June 18 in Hebert Park. Henry Solinsky and George White were the co-chairmen, and J. F. Lanier, a young attorney, delivered the coronation address. The day was filled with sack, foot, and horse racing, jousting, and similar sporting events, with the participants acquiring points for each entry. The winner, J. B. Langham, Jr., became the Grand Knight, and as result, promptly selected Miss Zema French as queen of the tournament. The closing hours of the evening were consumed with dancing.

At the tournament of 1886, C. L. Nash became the successful knight, and Miss Lula Langham, "having received the most votes as the prettiest young lady, was crowned queen."

No record of amateur drama in Beaumont exists before 1880, but its history, if known, would surely antedate the Civil War. In April, 1880, the United Friends of Temperance sponsored the mock opera "Pocahontas" and the farce "Domestic Economy" to a packed audience in the Blanchette Hall. The cast was composed entirely of local amateur players. In May, 1881, the members of St. Paul's African Methodist Church, which was founded in 1873, presented a pantomime production, entitled "The Mistletoe Bow."

In May and June of 1881, the Beaumont amateurs, with the "connivance" of the management of The Enterprise Company, presented two selections, entitled "Poor Pillicoddy" and "A Quiet Family," as the following quote reveals:

"The Beaumont Amateurs performed last night at the Blanchette Opera House to a good house. As the whole of the editorial staff of the "Enterprise" belonged to the company, it would not be quite proper for us to write up the performance at any length."

And indeed, John W. Leonard, the founder and first publisher, and his wife and T. A. Lamb, the first business manager, and Mrs. Lamb were the most ardent thespians in early Beaumont and were the organizers of the Beaumont Histrionic (theatrical) Society, founded in 1880. It is unclear exactly how long the city's first theatrical group remained active, but apparently for somewhat more than a decade. In November, 1885, the "Histrionic Club of Beaumont was greeted by a large audience at the Orange Opera House, where the players presented their first drama of the current season, entitled "Among The Breakers." In June, 1886, the "Beaumont Histrionics", a company composed entirely of local talent," played to a sell-out audience at the Crosby Opera House.

A later account of Beaumont's earliest community players appeared in 1887. A Galveston newspaper article recorded that some members of the Beaumont Histrionic Society "have served for about six years and have become quite proficient." The last records of the Histrionic Society in the writer's possession were published in 1892. As was often the case, perhaps because of the organizing families' religious faiths, the combination musicale and dramatic presentation were intended to raise funds for St. Mark's Episcopal Church, as the following paragraph reveals:

"The musical and dramatic entertainment at the Goodhue Opera House last evening for the benefit of the Episcopal Church was excellent. The "Doll's Drill" was one of the cutest plays to be seen in an age. The "Last Loaf" was also well-played by our amateur talent. There was a good house, and it is believed a good sum was realized." Three months later, the "Beaumont Histrionics (were) rehearsing the charming drama "Maud Muller."

Beginning in 1881, traveling troupes began stopping in Beaumont, and this welcomed addition to public entertainment would continue until the movies drove vaudeville into oblivion during the 1920s. The first troupe was the Fay Templeton Star Alliance. This company became very popular with the early citizens of Beaumont, and they returned annually for a decade. On April 25-26, 1881, the visiting players presented three musicales, billed as "operas," as follows: "Chimes of Normandy," "Chou-Fieuri," and "Olivette or Lost Love."

As might be expected, much public entertainment centered around church activities. In 1880-1881, the first Catholic, Episcopal, and Presbyterian congregations were also in the organizational and building stages, and church fairs and musicales were the most popular means for raising funds to build churches. The fairs usually lasted from one to three nights, and they often featured game and refreshment booths and local and imported musical talent. Two such fairs raised a sizeable percentage of the money needed to erect St. Louis Catholic Church (the predecessor to St. Anthony's) in 1881. And the Protestant denominations utilized this means of fund-raising as well. One church musicale at St. Louis' Church in October, 1881, drew much attention in both the Beaumont and Galveston newspapers, as follows:

"Following the overture was a duet between Miss Angie Bourg, the organist, and Father Vitalus Quinon, entitled "Let Music and Song," but the most noticeable appearances of the evening were the performances of Miss Bourg, Mr. Chandelier of New Orleans, and Father Parmentier of Waco. Mr. Chandelier's solos, "Le Buis Beni," and " Sleep Well," were rendered with a voice and artistic execution equal to anything on the lyric stage. Father Parmentier's performances on the violin also disclosed the true artist. The quartet by the Misses Bourg and Aurelia Adams and Messrs. Migues, Dinkle and Leonard, "Moonlight on the Lake," and the final chorus, the grand "Gloria in Excelsis," from Mozart's Twelfth Mass, ended with applause of a final musical performance."

It is interesting how very little Christmas and New Year celebrations in Southeast Texas have changed in the course of a century. And indeed, what change there is has resulted primarily from advances in technology (such as electric lights, television, etc.), the greater sophistication of children's toys, and what is often termed the "commercialization" of Christmas.

By 1880, the Christmas tree already decorated most Beaumont houses, which is somewhat amazing, since the first Christmas tree had been introduced first in Ohio only two or three decades earlier. But its use in the area's churches was still frowned on in 1880 and did not gain acceptance until a decade or more later. The Beaumont sawmills always closed from five to seven days for the holidays, which allowed parents to prepare and celebrate in whatever fashion they could afford. A copy of the Beaumont "Enterprise" recorded the following news briefs of the previous holiday season in 1880, as follows:

"Christmas day was thoroughly enjoyed in Beaumont. The weather was fine and everybody seemed bent on increasing the pleasures of the day.....The children found Santa Claus more than usually kind this Christmas-sign of prosperity...Several young ladies and gentlemen saw the old year out and the new year in at the Blanchette Hall last night." A community Christmas tree was also enjoyed by the city's children the Friday night before the holiday, a result of the civic-mindedness of several Beaumont ladies. As of 1885, athletic events were the one area of public entertainment that had not advanced very far. Only baseball had reached Southeast Texas as of that year, and of course, basketball (invented in 1891) and football were still in their infancy and would not reach Southeast Texas until much later. And baseball had only 'sandlot' or amateur status, professional and school sports generally emerging at later dates.

A Galveston "Daily News" article of June, 1885, confirmed that Beaumont's baseball club occasionally played the Galveston and Houston teams and added: "Beaumont capitalists are not enamored of baseball as a general thing, and our club is without the moneyed support of those of larger cities."

What makes that statement the more difficult to understand is the fact that almost every sawmill along the East Texas Railroad from Nona to Rockland, Texas, had its own baseball team by 1890, and occasionally the players were numbered among the mill owners as well. But whatever antagonism may have existed toward baseball at the managerial levels locally, most Beaumonters supported their 'amateur nine' of a century ago as enthusiastically as they cheered their professional clubs of the twentieth century.

Still another form of early Beaumont entertainment began in 1882 when the first traveling circus visited here. In 1883, the Beaumont "Enterprise" warned its readers to beware of "circus fakirs," which the editor defined as "money takers at circuses (who the previous year were) sometimes forgetful of the fact that you had already paid your entrance money and demanded a second payment, and sometimes they even forgot the denomination of the bill that you handed them." During a second visit in Beaumont in December, 1883, a circus clown received a compound leg fracture during his perforance. In December, 1891, many early Beaumonters attended the matinee and evening performances at the Rentz Brothers circus tent.

Although fraternal orders do not fall into the category of public entertainment, their memberships were certainly an instrument for providing it. Beaumont Lodge 286, A. F. and A. M. (Masonic) dates from the Civil War decade. By 1881, the United Friends of Temperance, with its white and black chapters; the Knights of Honor; and the American Legion of Honor had been added to the local list. By 1896, Beaumont could boast of possessing a chapter of most of the other fraternal orders that existed as of that year, namely: Elks, Knights of Pythias, Order of the Eastern Star, Improved Order of Red men, Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Woodmen of the World, and Rebeccah Lodge. By 1898, the Jubilee Lodge of B'nai B'rith and a local Order of the Sons of Herman had also been chartered.

The 1890s became the first great decade of social display and confederation in Beaumont. And gradually, Calder Avenue and neighboring thoroughfares were lined with the elegant residences of the affluent lumbermen and merchants. Be it the annual Firemen's Ball, the Masquerade Ball, or Leap Year Ball, hardly a month passed without some classic entertainment requiring the presence of the city's socially prominent families. And each week of the social season, a private party somewhere in town allowed the younger set to glide to the blaring of trumpets or the gentler refrains of waltz music.

Two social events of 1892, the New Year's Eve (Queen City) Ball at Orange and the Leap Year Ball at Beaumont, should refute any assertion that either sawmill community was no more than a frontier cowtown of little redeeming worth. Fortunately, the "Daily News" correspondent in each city lavishly portrayed each occurrence with the flair of a modern-day social page editor. Space will not permit a complete quote of each, but a description of the evening apparel of the Beaumont ladies, in the writer's judgment, should be preserved for posterity, as a contribution to the history of the fashions of the "Gay Nineties." The Orange article lists the following ballroom attire for the Beaumont women, as follows:

"Miss Mittie Ogden of Beaumont, blue silk, diamond ornaments; . . .Mrs. L. M. Ogden of Beaumont, black silk warp Henrietta, moire silk trimming; Miss Ida Jarrett of Beaumont, black brocade silk, with old gold trimmings; Miss Seawillow Haltom, light blue-embroidered crepe du chine, en train, diamond trimmings;...."

"Miss Ella Calhoun of Beaumont, black crepe du chine, black lace trimmings;....Miss Johnson of Beaumont, brown surah (?), silk velvet trimmings, natural flowers;....Miss Fannie Stewart of Beaumont, brown Henrietta, nail head trimmings; Miss Lola Jirou of Beaumont, pale blue crepe du chine, en train, pearl trimmings;....and Miss Mittie Johnson of Beaumont, pink moire gown, en train."

"The Beaumont delegation were as follows: Mrs. L. M. Ogden, Misses Minnie Bingham, Ida Jarrett, Mittie Ogden, Mittie Johnson, Fannie Stewart, Aurelia McCue, Seawillow Haltom, Zada Cooke, Lola Jirou, Ella Calhoun, Mona McFarland, Lizzie Caswell, and Messrs. A. B. Norvell, Perry Wiess, Bob Russell, Cush Wiess, E. Ligon, Hal Land, H. Schwaner, Hal Blanchette, Alvin Wiess, E. L. Boykin,...."

Three weeks later, the same newspaper affixed the following caption to an article, as follows: "Beaumont Brilliant Leap Year Ball A Success." Again, the lengthy article is especially noteworthy for its bountiful account of feminine evening attire, as follows

"The ladies of Beaumont who made the occasion pleasant by their presence were: Mrs. Lem Ogden, black silk, jet trimmings; Mrs. I. Bingham, black lace and jet trimmings; Mrs. J. Goodhue, lavender, lace trimmings; Mrs. Ben Bartholomew, blue lace blue silk; Mrs. Tranchard, black silk and passementarie (trimmings); Mrs. Sedgwick, black silk grenadine; Mrs. O. F. Allen, green Henrietta, red trimmings; Mrs. W. H. Ives, black and jet; Mrs. Walston, fancy Henrietta, gilt trimmings; Mrs. C. L. Nash, white China silk, ostrich trimmings; Mrs. L. J. Kopke, black cashmere; Miss Mittie Ogden, black and pink silk; Miss (Aurelia) McCue, white silk, en train; Miss Kate Ogden, pink albatross and black velvet; Miss Fannie Stewart, pink velvet; Miss Hattie Chapman, pale lavender evening dress."

"Miss Mittie Bingham, white brocade and crepe du chine; Mrs. McCall, Grecian costume of white and gilt, diamonds; Miss Alice Weber, white satin, en train, swansdowne; Mrs. I. R. Bordages, old rose satine; Miss Seawillow Haltom, white cashere, en train; ... Miss Laura Blanchette, black and pink satine; Miss Lizzie Caswell, white silk and sash; Miss Ella Calhoun, black silk, lace; Miss Ida Jarrett, pink with white velvet bodice; Miss Skip McFaddin, brown brocade silk; Mrs. Capt (F. A. Hyatt), black silk; Miss Nona McFarland, pale blue, white lace trimmings; Miss Lola Jirou, pale blue en train; Miss Maude Watson, white and gilt; Miss Mattie Gray, white silk, en train; Miss Mittie Johnson, cream cashmere, silk ruches (strips of lace net); Miss Evelyn Thompson, Nile green and white tulle overdress.....

"The ladies deserve great credit for the success of the ball. Misses Haltom and Thompson deserve special mention for their zeal in making it pleasant for their visiting friends and for other favors..."

Also in the 1890's, the number of social and intellectual clubs proliferated until it would become tedious to attempt to name them. Even the card players sometimes organized by their trade or religion, such as the Lumbermen's Whist Club or the Jewish Whist Club. And of course, the Women's Club must be nearing their centennial anniversary.

Although the writer is tempted to label the "gay '90s" decade as a "golden age" of sorts, the great age of public entertainment was still in the future. While the Kyle Opera House existed between 1901 and 1930, the finest and most world-renowned talent that money could buy visited Beaumont. And yet another writer, Mrs. Jeannette Robinson, considers the years 1929 to 1931 as constituting the "Golden Era for The Performing Arts" in Beaumont. John McCormick, Paul Whiteman, Ignace Paderewski, Marian Talley, Fritz Kreisler, and the United State Marine Band were among many of the world's most gifted artists who performed in Beaumont during the latter years. In fact, John Philip Sousa, either with the Marine Band or his own band, played in Beaumont on four different occasions between 1890 and 1930. And if I recall correctly, I think my music teacher at Port Neches about 1928 told us she had attended a concert of Madame Schumann-Heinck here.

In truth, one can make of early-day Beaumont either a frontier cowtown or a cosmopolitan community, whichever he or she so chooses, and there are sources to support both opinions. The first public hanging in Jefferson County was here in November, 1856, but so was the Beaumont Debating Society, which existed from 1855 until 1880. There were also eight saloons and a jail in Beaumont in 1881, but nearby stood eight churches, seven schools, five lodges, a militant Temperance Society, a newspaper, a sheriff's department, and a police station, all dedicated to keeping the transient log rafters, cattle drovers, or any lawless element in check.

In addition, there were other sources of pleasure, steamboat excursions, union school and Sunday School picnics, and numerous other holiday celebrations and parades, which space will not allow any elaboration of. In fact, during the middle 1880's, steamboat excursions from Beaumont, Orange and Sabine Pass usually met each July 4th at the present-day Port Neches Park, where they picnicked, played baseball, or else explored the nearby Indian burial mounds for arrow heads and other artifacts. Early Beaumonters work hard -- of that there can be no denial, but they played hard as well, to the fullest extent that their primitive frontier circumstances and economic status would permit.

Copyright 1998-2018 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
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