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IMCPL Features Images of Historic English’s Opera House Programs

August 4, 2010

Re-live a period of Indianapolis history when the world’s leading actors and musicians appeared onstage as part of the latest collection of digital images available at the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library.

Visitors to the Library’s website at will find hundreds of images from printed programs of performances by such theatrical legends as the Barrymores, George M. Cohan, Katherine Hepburn, Sir Lawrence Olivier, Helen Hayes and Sarah Bernhardt that occurred during the history of English’s Opera House, which occupied the entire northwest quadrant of Monument Circle from 1880 – 1948.

Many of the images of programs include ads for local businesses, which themselves offer a fascinating glimpse into the city’s history. There are also previews and reviews of performances, and even some jokes and commentary.

English’s Opera House, which became known as the English Theatre around 1930, presented opera, drama, musical comedy, ballet, concerts, minstrel shows, lectures, vaudeville and film. It was built by William Hayden English, a local businessman and 1880 Democratic vice presidential candidate.

Modeled on the New York Grand Opera House, English’s Opera House consisted of four stories of Bedford limestone with tall columns and wide windows, frescoed ceilings and walls, marble pillars and a grand staircase. The English seated 2,500 patrons in crimson plush and leather seats and boasted the largest stage in the city, allowing for elaborate stage productions including a spectacular version of Ben-Hur in 1902 that featured a chariot race with eight horses running at full speed on treadmills!

The theatre was demolished in 1948 to make way for a new J.C. Penney store. The last performance there was on May 1, 1948 with the production of “Blossom Time.” It had served as the longest lived auditorium in Indianapolis.

The digitized images, which were scanned from the collection of actual programs that are available for viewing upon request at Central Library in the Nina Mason Pulliam Indianapolis Special Collections Room, can easily be accessed by clicking on the “Digital Library” link in the left column of the Library’s homepage. They join a variety of other historic digital collections, including the Indianapolis Postcards CollectionChildren’s Museum artifacts, the May Wright Sewall Papers, the World War One Poster Collection, and actual recordings of poems read by beloved Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley.