On the evening of Nov. 16, 1893, costumed revelers gathered at the Napa Valley Opera House for a grand masquerade ball. This annual tradition, now a highly anticipated social event, was at the peak of its success. “Gents in mask” paid $1 for entry, “ladies in mask” and “spectators” paid 50 cents. Guests had the option of coming early to rent a costume, and the stakes were high: An advertisement for the event proclaimed: “Five Elegant Prizes Will Be Awarded.”
The Opera House had opened Feb. 13, 1880, with a performance of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore.” It flourished during its early years, regularly drawing crowds of nearly 1,300 from the Bay Area.
Some nights, audiences came to hear the Napa Orchestral Society. On other nights, they came for lectures about life at San Quentin State Prison or the local wheat industry — Napa was once known as the “bread basket” of California. There were boxing bouts, minstrel shows, beauty pageants and vaudeville acts with dancers, jugglers, acrobats, magicians, monologists, hypnotists and acting troupes.
Author Jack London is said to have read from the Opera House stage.
Charles Levansaler, the man behind most of these performances and served as the host of the 1893 Masquerade Ball. The Maine native took over as manager a few months after the Opera House opened, and served in that position for the better part of 19 years.
He established contacts with booking agents throughout the west and brought all sorts of entertainment to Napa. One of the most famous was John Phillip Souza who brought his brass band to the Opera House in 1896.
The Italian opera singer Luisa Tetrazzini performed at the Opera House as well, following her 1905 San Francisco debut. In 1884 the first heavyweight boxing champion of the world, John L. Sullivan, fought an exhibition match in a specially constructed ring on the main floor of the Opera House.
In those days, the Opera House theater boasted a hand-painted advertorial curtain promoting local businesses, an ornately painted arch above the stage and a majestic, stained-glass skylight. A spectacular curved staircase led to a wooden balcony with a curved façade. Brass chandeliers hung from the ceiling.
The building was a rarity. Instead of erecting the stage on ground level, it was built on the second and third floors, leaving the lower floor for retail shops and restaurants. The auditorium was constructed with a flat floor instead of a typically inclined one, which made it easier to accommodate local dances and pageants.
Patrons on the main floor sat in wrought iron settees while those in the gallery, which was inclined, sat on long wooden benches. Box seats were constructed on both sides of the stage that served a dual purpose. During theatrical productions they served as doorways for actors to enter and exit the stage from the wings. For dances and other social functions, the two boxes could be rented at a premium price for well-to-do Napans to see and to be seen by others.
The Napa Hotel, located on the corner of Main and First streets, often housed Opera House performers. An enclosed walkway constructed on the outside rear of the building connected the Napa Hotel’s second floor with a door behind the stage. A performer staying at the hotel could change into his or her costume at the hotel and cross into the theater unseen.
With the advent of movies, the popularity of vaudeville diminished. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake also did its damage to the Opera House. It went dark early in the 20th century and stayed that way until the 21st. After an extensive campaign to save and renovated the grand old building — which barely escaped the wreckers’ ball in the 1970s — the Napa Valley Opera House reopened in 2002.
“Since the first performers walked on the stage in 1880 to today, the Opera House has been a historically significant presence on Napa’s Main Street,” said Mayor Jill Techel. “Since its renovation and reopening in 2002, it’s become a shining jewel in the revitalization of downtown Napa.”
A 130th birthday
The nonprofit theater once again presents a rich variety of events; the than 120 shows and events each year range from community theater to world music to political rallies.
This year, the Opera House has been celebrating its 130th birthday with a series of history-based events. On Nov. 6, the music of John Philip Sousa will fill the theater once again when a 22 piece concert band and a troupe of actors will sing, talk and play through Sousa’s life.
The Opera House staff is also hoping to rekindle the spirit of bygone days with a “modern and magical” Grand Masquerade Ball like one Charles Levansaler might have presided over more than a century ago.
Scheduled for Oct. 30, the evening kicks off at 8 p.m. with a performance in the main theater by the Quartetto Gelato, a group called the “Cirque du Soleil of Classical Music.” A party follows in the Café Theatre with desserts and wines.
And while costumes are optional, once again prizes will be awarded for the best dressed.
Rich in history and spirits, the Opera House has once again taken a place in heart of the city — but are there more than memories in the venerable walls?
Artistic director Evy Warshawski recounts this tale, fitting for the Halloween season:
“I was in the building alone, and for some strange reason on the stage — maybe (I was) the last one to turn all the lights off. I turned around to look at the stage and just then, a very wispy-looking tallish male (for sure he was a he) swooped across a small portion of the stage and disappeared.
“It left a very strange impression, but not a scary one, more like the “feeling” of someone being there. I also remember the color blue, and that he had a lithe body that moved kind of like the straw man in ‘Wizard of Oz.’ He also looked like he could have been some kind of actor from a Shakespeare play.
“I’ve not seen him since.”
But he just might show up at the grand ball on Oct. 30.