Documenting the American South


Going to the Show

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Crystal Palace (presumed opened 1908; presumed closed 1917)

The Crystal Palace was a small "family" vaudeville theater located at 21 N. Second Street, between Princess and Market Street. It appears to have been converted from an existing storefront space in a two-story building approximately 40 feet x 60 feet. It is not clear whether the Crystal Palace occupied the entirety of the first floor of the building or only half of it. It was the idea of Simeon A. Schloss, long-time lessee/manager of the Academy of Music (Thalian Hall, Opera House) in Wilmington who built up a chain of opera houses in North Carolina and Virginia between 1900 and his death in 1913. The Schloss Theatre Circuit was sold to S.A. Lynch of Asheville in April 1915.

In the show business language of its time, the Crystal Palace was a "ten-cent," "nickel," or "family" vaudeville theater. From 1905 to 1908, hundreds of such small vaudeville theaters opened in cities across the U.S. They typically presented three to five vaudeville acts and a reel or two of motion pictures in a program (a show lasting roughly one to one and one half hours) for an admission charge of five to fifteen cents.

In the continuum of entertainments, the facilities, program, and admission charge of family vaudeville fell roughly between the "big-time" or "high-class" vaudeville theater performed in an opera house (where admission was twenty-five cents to more than one dollar) and the storefront movie theater (where admission in the 1906-1910 period was still only five or ten cents).

Some family vaudeville theaters, including the Crystal Palace, were repurposed storefronts seating fewer than five-hundred patrons. In larger cities, family vaudeville sometimes took over much larger, purpose-built theaters. For example, in September 1905, the Family Circuit Amusement Company leased the 1600-seat Olympic Theater on 130th Street in New York City and ran it as a family vaudeville theater, charging five to ten cents admission. The family vaudeville "boom" apparently began on the west coast. In Seattle, Alexander Pantages had formed a circuit of store-front vaudeville theaters in 1904. The movement spread from there to Chicago and to the east coast.

Vaudeville acts were the main attractions of family vaudeville theaters, with movies occupying supporting roles after 1906. (Allen 1980, pp. 203-206).

The dates of operation for the Crystal Palace are difficult to determine. The venue is not listed in the 1907 Wilmington city directory. The Wilmington Star reported on September 3, 1908, that the Crystal Palace would open for the season on Labor Day, and mentioned that workers were busy improving the theater by adding new carpet and scenery, suggesting that it had been in operation for some time prior to the fall of 1908. The paper also reported that Simeon Schloss, who also leased and managed the Academy of Music at this time, intended to "personally direct the management of the theater."

On the 1910 Sanborn Fire Insurance map, the first floor of 21 N. Second Street is shown as vacant. A furniture store was directly above it. The next year, it appears as the "Palace Theatre" in the Wilmington city directory. In 1913, it is listed there as the Crystal Palace. Frank Peiffer, formerly manager of the Joyland Theatre and more recently at the Airdome, is listed as the manager of the Crystal Palace. The 1915 Sanborn Fire Insurance map shows the space at 19-21 N. Second St. being used as a furniture warehouse. The Crystal Palace does not appear in the 1917 city directory.

Fortunately, the Crystal Palace left a last impression on at least one Wilmingtonian. Local memoirist Henry Bacon McKoy devotes a chapter to the Crystal Palace in Do You Remember When?, his 1957 recollection of early twentieth-century Wilmington (McKoy 1957, pp. 87-88).

The building housing the Crystal Palace was, according to McKoy, a two-story, red brick structure. The theater itself must have occupied only the first floor: "the ceiling was low, and the several columns supporting the story above did nothing to help the view of the audience. The stage was small also."

McKoy recalls his own experience of the Crystal Palace:

" As a young boy in my teens I had nothing to compare it with. I did go and I did enjoy it, although it was not always easy to get together the fifteen cents that was the price of admission for a child. . . . It was here that I saw my first juggling acts, and gazed in wonder as a man and a woman tossed numerous balls, hats, pans, and hoops in the air and kept them up, and deftly caught them one by one at the finish . . . There were songs and dances, and many would-be clowns. Every type of musical instrument was employed in some fashion and many instruments that were not even musical. In costume, there were the Irishman who had just come to America with his jokes about it, the simple faced and expressionless Dutchman, also always the butt of jokes, and, generally with a big horn, the inevitable negro minstrel. . . .

Many of the acts were shoddy and poor and cheap, and to gain applause they would shake out and wave an American flag or play Dixie. Many were, however, good and some were excellent entertainment and called for real artists to perform. . . .

Along with the vaudeville show always went one moving picture. There was also a song by some local talent with the aid of a tinny piano and illuminated colored slides shown on the screen, and the audience was often asked to participate. The program changed each week, and sometimes twice a week the costumes, song and pictures were changed while the same actors remained."