Wyoming Valley’s theater audiences of yore must have been in love with Julia Marlowe.
The British-born actress was a regular visitor to the stage at the Wilkes-Barre Music Hall in the late 1800s In one year, 1889, she even made two appearances in a couple of the most popular plays of the day.
Today, a lot of attention is being focused on the demolition of the Hotel Sterling, at West Market and North River streets and upon what, if anything, will replace this once-grand old building.
But while there are tears for the Sterling, there is no living memory of the Sterling’s predecessor on that site – the equally iconic Music Hall. The operas, the plays, the musicals, the comedy and the out-sized personalities, like Julia Marlowe, that from 1871 to 1897 drew applause, cheers and laughter are all forgotten now.
The Music Hall showcased the best of its time. In the same year that Marlowe made two appearances, the Music Hall hosted operas “Boccaccio” and “La Perichole,” the Gilbert and Sullivan romp “Yeomen of the Guard,” Shakespeare’s “Othello,” crowd-favorite plays “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “East Lynne” plus two appearances by Kate Claxton, one of the few actresses to rival Marlowe for popularity.
The Music Hall was designed by renowned architect Isaac Perry, designer of several other downtown Wilkes-Barre commercial and residential buildings. It was three stories tall, with businesses and offices on the ground floor and the auditorium and stage area taking up the second and third levels. Seating more than 1,400, it was Wilkes-Barre’s first large theater and, for a long time, the dominant one.
The hall brought a world of performance magic to the community. If you wanted to see famous show people like Edwin Booth or Marie Dressler, all you had to do was head downtown. Just across West Market Street and a few doors down South River was the six-story Wyoming Valley Hotel, bedecked with balconies, where entertainment royalty routinely stayed. Together, the two buildings formed an impressive gateway to Wilkes-Barre for anyone coming across the Market Street Bridge.
From its opening night Feb. 18, 1871, the Music Hall hosted an incredible string of big names. Former heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan visited to talk of his ring exploits. Joseph Jefferson, who entertained 19th-century audiences with his “Rip Van Winkle” portrayal, made appearances. Midget Tom Thumb charmed the kids. Classical and opera conductor Walter Damrosch led his sonorous orchestra.
The dark-haired Marlowe, of course, remained a favorite. Even in the male-dominated plays of Shakespeare – one of her specialties - she was generally advertised as the star,
Sandwiched in were acts that sound strange to modern ears: Cleveland’s Colored Minstrels, “The Battle of Gettysburg” and spiritualist Eva Fay. In 1891 the Music Hall boosted the career of young Daniel L. Hart (a future Broadway playwright and mayor of Wilkes-Barre) by presenting his “The Footman.”
On May 1, 1897, faced with stiff competition from the newer nearby Grand Opera House, the Music Hall closed with a performance by the Bohemian Burlesquers. By century’s end, the massive Hotel Sterling had replaced it.
Julia Marlowe? She would live into the era of movies and TV, though retired in her final decades.
With the recent demolition of the beloved Sterling, the plot at West Market and North River is again vacant. There are no plans for a new building.
One thing is certain, though. Whatever does arise on that spot will have two darn tough acts to follow.