Save the Victory

The many resurrections of the Victoria Theatre

By Joyell Nevins

On the corner of First and Main in downtown Dayton stands one of the most beautiful and recognized jewels in the Gem City’s crown. The Grand Old Lady, the Disney House, the Victory … for the last 150 years, the Victoria Theatre has brought art, music and invaluable memories to the people of Dayton.

Relationships have been forged, careers have been sparked and a love of the theatrical has been cultivated there. The Victoria’s walls speak not just of the famous names that have played on its stage, or the businesses that have flanked its halls, or the destruction that almost leveled it—three times. What the Victoria’s story truly tells is the people who have given their blood, sweat and tears to assure its survival. There is a reason the Victoria remains the oldest standing theatre in Dayton: the people who have fought for it, and the community who treasures it.

Grand from the get-go 

The Victoria Theatre was the original brainchild of distillery owners Joseph and William Turner, who sold their business in what has been speculated a way to raise the needed capital. In 1866, the brothers’ project cost them $325,000.

The Turner Opera House, as they called it, was hailed as the most beautiful theatre west of Philadelphia. At that time the building was three stories, with the theatre on the third floor. The first floor was retail shops, and the second floor administrative offices and apartments.

To get to the theatre, attendees had to enter off First Street and ascend a grand spiral staircase. Then they were greeted by an auditorium decorated in blue and gold with a frescoed ceiling. Those frescoes were sealed with beeswax—a highly flammable substance.

In 1869, that’s what spelled the Victoria’s first demolition. Due to what the city determined was arson, a fire exploded from the top and burnt downward, leaving only the front façade standing. The opera house, seven stores and three dwellings burned in what remains one of Dayton’s worst fires in terms of property damage.

In 1870, a group of interested citizens and potential investors met to discuss what would become of the ruins—one of many times the Victoria would be saved by citizens who fought for it. The group of citizens called themselves the Music Hall Company and called for an immediate rebuilding with an auditorium on the main floor. Thanks to the capital and expertise of businessmen Col. Daniel E. Mead, his brother Charles, and Thomas Babbitt, the call was answered.

In 1871, the Turner Opera House reopened as the Music Hall. Although there were still storefronts, the auditorium was now on the first floor with an entrance on Main Street. Over the next century, the building was home to a myriad of businesses, such as a grocer, a pub, a men’s clothing store, a shoe repair shop and modeling agency.

The auditorium showed not only plays (including “Ben Hur” with live horses), but concerts, dance extravaganzas, literary lectures and comedians. It was even allegedly home to a speakeasy during the prohibition era (with tunnel access to the street from the basement). The name changed from Music Hall to Grand Opera House in 1885, Victoria Opera House in 1899, and Victoria Theatre in 1902.

The flood of 1913 devastated the insides of the Victoria Theatre. After a $90,000 renovation designed by architects Schenck & Williams, the theatre reopened on Nov. 25, 1913, as the New Victoria.

Five years later, another fire tore through and ruined the first floor theatre. Schenck & Williams were brought in again to rebuild the auditorium. An eagle medallion was added to the decorations at the center of the proscenium arch and the space was renamed the Victory Theatre, in honor of the Allied victory in World War I. The Victory officially opened in 1919.

A Disney house

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Victory was known less for theatre and more for its films. You can still meet people in the area that recall the “Disney House” and remember spending Saturday afternoons there while their mothers went shopping at places like Rike’s.

“The Victory was my babysitter,” laughs Victoria Senior House Manager David Hastings.

For others, it was a special treat with their parents. Like Daytonian Linda Walker Howard’s trip downtown with her mother, siblings and friends to see “Mary Poppins.”

“It must have been 10 below zero, so after walking from the bus stop at Third and Main, Mom lined us up inside the warm lobby and went to stand in line, which was already around the block, for the tickets,” recalls Howard. “She wore aluminum frames on her eyeglasses, and when she finally made her way into the lobby to the ticket window, the bridge of her nose was white and her eyelashes were frozen to her lenses!  We loved the movie and I love and appreciate my mother’s patience and determination to make sure we got to see it!”

In the 1970s, Victory became a place for rock bands, too. Aerosmith, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Eagles and Bachman Turner Overdrive all made appearances on that stage.

“What a wonderful place for concerts!” enthuses Susan Conley, another Dayton resident. “To see Steven Tyler and Aerosmith performing on that stage—wow.”

Big names, bigger nights

Steven Tyler wasn’t the only celebrity to grace the Victoria’s stage. The space has been garnering well-known names—before and after fame—since the beginning. When Turner Opera House initially opened, the Turner Brothers had cajoled Edwin Forrest by offering him half of the gross to be their first act. Forrest is regarded as the first renowned American-born actor (long before there was a Hollywood) and the opening of his show “Virginius, The Roman Father” at the Opera House was considered the social event of the season.

Mark Twain gave a lecture called “Roughing It” in 1872. Oscar Wilde discussed “Decorative Art” in 1882. Harry Houdini escaped from a box made by National Cash Register carpenters on the Victory’s stage in 1925.

Ethel Barrymore, the “First Lady” of American theatre, starred in her first show at the Victoria in 1904. Ethel and her brother John performed frequently at the theatre in the first half of the 20th century. In fact, Public Relations Manager Diane Schoeffler-Warren notes that Drew is about the only Barrymore that hasn’t graced Victoria’s stage—although not from the staff’s lack of trying!

More modern names who have performed at the theatre include Idina Menzel (before she was “Wicked”), Carol Channing, Vincent Price, Henry Fonda, Maya Angelou, Della Reece, Cloris Leachman and the never forgotten Faye Dunaway. Director of Graphics and Publications Keith Wyatt says one of his favorite performers was Carrie Fisher, who was just “wonderful” behind the scenes. He noted Gregory Hines too, who came out in the lobby after his performance and was willing to sign anyone’s tap shoes!

Some of these performers came with interesting requests in their writers, or contracts. David Copperfield wanted baby seedless watermelons (the tour manager said he would refuse to go on unless he got his watermelon), Jerry Seinfeld requested Superman comics and Kenny Rogers needed a steak and strawberries at the last minute. Bill Cosby’s requirement of two large green smoothies and a 20 ounce Starbucks coffee made him have to take a bathroom break in the middle of his own routine—but then he gave the audience an extra half hour to make up for it.

The Victoria crew got to meet many of these performers not only in backstage work, but in the cast parties they used to hold. After opening night, the Victoria Theatre would host a party in the mezzanine for the cast and crew of the show and the Victoria staff—for some of the bigger shows, that could be almost 60 people. These parties got quite the positive reputation in the theatre world.

Another reputable part of the Victoria Theatre was the D’Aloias. In the costume workshop, formerly presided over by Betty D’Aloia, is a smattering of 8×10 headshots that read like a who’s who of the performing arts, all signed to Betty (the Flying Karamazov brothers signed theirs “To Betty, our mom away from mom”). Betty and her husband Nelson were icons of the Victoria staff and worked tirelessly behind the scenes for 20 years before their retirement in 2010 (Nelson passed away a year later at age 86).

Matters of the heart

It’s that theatrical quality that anything can happen, along with the majesty of the theatre, that gives the Victoria such a special place in people’s hearts. Sandra Rutledge credits the Victoria with inspiring her entertainment career.

“I remember dressing up in my pink dress to travel to Downtown Dayton to watch ‘Jungle Book’ at the Victory Theatre! As an eighth grader, this was an enormous treat for my friend Crystal and me,” Rutledge shares. “The Victoria Theatre was one of the venues that inspired me to pursue an entertainment career in acting and singing as I loved Victoria Theatre’s stage and the glamorous environment.”

Rutledge would later perform on that stage in musical productions and as the opening act for national jazz artist Alex Bugnon.

The Victoria has long been a contributor to romance as well—whether that’s a noteworthy date night, a celebration of an anniversary or a stepping-stone on the way to the next level. Such is the case with Stephen Carrasas’s parents. His father, also Stephen Carrasas, was from New York and joined the Navy in 1940. After being stationed on the U.S.S. Helena, he became a member of their band.

When the Helena was sunk in the Battle of Kula Gulf in the Solomon Islands, he and the remaining members of the band went on a war-bond tour called “The Survivors of the Helena Band with Alvino Rey.” One of those stops was at the Victory Theatre.

Before the show, Carrasas Sr. went down to the USO club, which was a couple of blocks away. A pretty girl in a WAC uniform caught his eye, as Stephen describes it, and he asked her to play ping-pong. Later in the conversation, he offered her and her friends tickets to see him perform at the Victory. They were later married after the war. Their son Stephen is still grateful to the Victoria for being what brought them together!

Not going down

The Victory faced extinction again in the early 1970s, not due to a fire or flood, but lack of income. Rising expenses and sinking attendance was going to force the then-owners to close the doors. Thanks to, again, a grassroots group of citizens, prominent faces and investors willing to take a chance, the Victory stood its ground. It even gained a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

After the “Save the Victory” campaign, there was a decade when the theatre could barely stay afloat. But float it did, and by the early 1980s, the fledgling Victory Theatre Association was owner of the Victory building. In 1988, the Arts Center Foundation acquired the theatre from the Victory Theatre Association and began a $17.5 million renovation project. In 1990, the Victoria Theatre underwent its last name change and reopened as it is today.

“When the remodel of the building happened, I was amazed by the gold trim work around the stage and marble floors [marble that was imported from a quarry in Italy],” Daytonian Libby Ballangee says. “I thought it was the most beautiful place I had ever been.”

The Victoria Theatre’s Next Stage campaign aims to build a $30 million endowment fund to provide for future capital, programming and educational needs of all of its art facilities. For details on shows, volunteer opportunities and Next Stage, please visit victoriatheatre.com, follow @VictoriaTheatre on Twitter or call 937.228.7591.

Joyell Nevins believes in the power of the written word, a good cup of coffee, and sometimes, the need for a hug (please, no Tommy Boy references). Follow her on her blog “Small World, Big God” at swbgblog.wordpress.com or reach her at

joyellnevins@daytoncitypaper.com

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Joyell believes in the power of the written word, a good cup of coffee, and sometimes, the need for a hug (please, no Tommy Boy references). Follow her on her blog “Small World, Big God” at swbgblog.wordpress.com or reach her at joyellnevins@daytoncitypaper.com

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