In 1859, William Green built Greenâ€™s Hall, what would later be named the Grand Opera House, at Second and Busseron Streets. The three-story building, used mostly for stage productions, burned in 1885 but was immediately rebuilt. In 1896, it was purchased by John T. McJimsey, who undertook extensive remodeling and changed the name to McJimseyâ€™s Theatre.
The venue continued to draw large crowds for all kinds of shows, be it comedy acts, dramas, concerts, and later films. One of the big stage shows at the start of the new century was â€śAlice of Old Vincennes,â€ť starring Virginia Harned, which played there on Feb. 26, 1902.
In 1907, McJimsey sold a half interest in the theatre to local real estate man W. R. Crackel and the building again underwent renovations. From that time on, it was known as the Grand Opera House. The men even formed a corporation, selling shares in the Grand Opera House Company.
While the theater season had run from September to May (with no shows on Sundays), the Grand would henceforth be operated year-round. The Vincennes High School senior class did its own production of â€śAlice of Old Vincennesâ€ť there on Feb. 25, 1916, as part of the celebration of the state centennial. The controversial film â€śThe Birth of a Nationâ€ť drew enormous crowds in March of that same year.
Another change in ownership took place in 1917, when McJimsey, his son, Guy, and Crackel, sold the Grand Opera House to John H. Ward and Dr. R. R. Trueblood, of Lawrence County, Illinois.
Just a little over a year after the sale of the building, crowds had started to dwindle, and the Grand Opera House, as an entertainment venue, became all but obsolete. It closed for good in the spring of 1918. One of the last movies shown there was â€śCleopatra,â€ť featuring silent film star Theda Bara. The final big stage show, a comedy called â€śTurn to the Right,â€ť came to the Grand that April.
There were a couple of reasons for the closing of the venerable old Grand. Most importantly, it suffered competition from several smaller motion picture theaters that had opened in the city, where patrons could see silent films for a nickel or a dime. Six of these were operating in Vincennes in 1918; the Moon, the Lyric, the Princess, the Alhambra, the Strand, and the Alice.
Furthermore, the country was in the midst of the First World War and fewer theatrical troupes were traveling around the country, thus it became a challenge to book acts.
After the war, it was determined that Vincennes was again in need of a large theater and the Pantheon was constructed at 428 Main Street, opening in 1921.
In October 1918, a century ago this fall, the Ward Realty Co. purchased the Opera House for $25,000 and quickly adapted the building for other uses. In December, the contract was awarded to remodel the Grand into a cigar factory. The Evansville Cigar Company, a branch of the American Cigar Company, opened there on May 12, 1919. The business employed mostly young women, who rolled the tobacco leaves to make cigars. The cigar company operated successfully for a decade, closing in 1930 following automation of the cigar manufacturing process.
The building also housed a bowling alley and there would be several retail businesses on the first floor.
Finally, in the late winter of 1959, the nearly 75-year-old landmark was torn down and the city began looking into uses for the property.
At their April 25, 1960 meeting, the city council took the initial steps to purchase the site to be used as a parking lot to help alleviate downtown parking issues. The First and Busseron streets part of the block was already used for parking, known as the â€śjockey lot.â€ť The opera house property was then owned by the American National Bank and their asking price was $20,000. A revenue bond in the amount of $27,000 would pay for both the property and improvements.
The plaque commemorating the corner as once the location of the Grand Opera House, mentioned in last weekâ€™s column, was placed by the Vincennes Historical & Antiquarian Society in 1966 after the city built the small brick patio adjacent to the parking lot.
The Riverfront Pavilion opened there in 2009 and is currently used for parking, public gatherings, and the Farmers Market of Historic Vincennes.