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January 19, 2021

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Once upon a time in Ada

By Lee Crouse

Ada’s theatrical days recalled

The Ada Herald January, 18, 1978
Believe it or not, Ada had an 800-seat opera house and was able to support New York road shows some 90 years ago (1880). Players stopped here because facilities were good and the village was about midway between Pittsburg and Chicago on the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

A 125 years ago Ada then known as Johnstown, had very little in the way of entertainment. The young people, when they had time to party, donned their best homespun clothing, gathered in a cabin, sat on puncheon benches and danced to the tunes of an old time fiddler.

Mrs. Nathan Ahlefeld, described her first visit here in 1855. The trip over corduroy roads from Kenton to Johnstown and back took two days. Among her memories was a ride on a headcar on the new railroad built through Ada in 1853.

H.S. Lehr’s Normal School, founded here in 1871, had been growing by 1883. The village had several mills and many small businesses, including seven groceries, three restaurants, three hotels, three drugstores, three saloons and five blacksmith shops.

Ada was then able to support theatricals in Ballard’s Hall or Bastable’s Hall, erected in early 1879, and later known as Ream’s Hall. It was a 40 x 60 room with portable stage and seats for 60 to 70 patrons. Shows were staged by the Histrionic Society.

In the early 1880s, such entertainment declined “from the sublime to the ridiculous,” reported Agnew Welsh. The village then was a popular stopping place for a large circus, itinerant musicians, dancers and con artists.” Robberies were common.

The “Opera House” erected in 1881 by the village council brought performers her from all over the world. The building housed municipal offices and the Bon Yon restaurant. “But no one went to the opera house expecting to hear opera. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben Hur were among the popular productions.”

By 1896 the literary societies and military companies fostered by Dr. Lehr were very popular at the university. The village was in a fight against saloons

The Tri-County Fair was held here annually until 1901, on the grounds now known as Memorial Park. Racing on the fair’s half-mile track was a big attraction. Stage shows were sponsored at the opera house each evening. It was not until 1914 that the Farmers and Merchants Picnic became a community event on the third Wednesday of August. The annual one-week Chautauqua program was well-supported until after World War I.

Some of the country’s political leaders appeared here at events sponsored by the university. Among them were James Garfield, William McKinley, William Howard Taft and William Jennings Bryan. Scores of artists, lecturers and musical groups were heard. One of the bands was directed by John Phillip Sousa.

The Ben Great Players and other touring stage groups provided occasional entertainment in the 1920s. For several years the King Komedy Co. staged a one-week series of tent shows in the village.

But the heyday of local stage productions ended with the coming of movies. The opera house (Whiteside and Nuada Theater) was converted into a gym for the high school during the depression in the 1930s. The Lyle and Odeon with the screenplays and soloists were popular.