At 150, Victoria Theatre Looks Back At Its History
This year, Victoria Theatre celebrates 150 years in downtown Dayton. For WYSO’s Culture Couch, I took a tour with a longtime Victoria Theater employee who shared some memories from backstage.
David Hastings leads me into the Victoria Theatre’s auditorium. He moves with grace, which makes sense — he was a professional ice skater and dancer before he became the Victoria’s house manager in 1976.
“You’re the host of a big party,” says David. “You make sure that everything is going right, that everyone has their drinks, they know where the restrooms are, they know where their seats are, you take care of any kind of seating problems...”
David stops short — he doesn’t want take all the credit.
“Let me back up. The house manager doesn’t do it. Our wonderful volunteers do it.”
The auditorium is lit dimly from ornate fixtures overhead and on the walls. We sit in the back in plush, green seats, and David tells me some of the Victoria’s history: it opened on Jan. 1, 1866, as Turner Opera House. Three years later, all but its facade burned after an apparent arson. The theater was rebuilt and renamed the Dayton Music Hall, and then the Grand Opera House. It survived the Great Dayton Flood of 1913 and another fire, and had its name changed to the Victoria Opera House in honor of England’s late Queen Victoria.
After World War I, its name was changed yet again to Victory Theatre. The theater came close to demolition in the 1970s, but was saved by a citizen effort to raise funds and have the building added to the National Register of Historic Places, and finally became the Victoria Theatre in the 1980s.
David loves looking back on past performances.
“I’m probably going to have people throw rocks at me,” he says. “‘Cats’ is my very favorite show. And one year, I’m not sure which year it was, we had ‘Cats’ coming in, and the cast got here. Part of the set and the costumes were in a snowdrift in Kentucky. And the old saying ‘the show must go on,’ and it did. And the actors were unbelievable, they had nothing to back them up, it was just them and the lights. It was an unbelievable performance, the audience just raved about it.”
We head backstage, which is surprisingly new-looking, with fluorescent lights; it was all remodeled in the 1980s. The walls are covered with posters from past productions. As we walk, David reads out the names of some of the shows and their stars. He tells me he met the star of the 1989 production of “Grandma Moses: An American Primitive.”
“I saw this woman trying to get in our secured doors. She had a tattered sweater on that was torn. And I open the door and I say, ‘May I help you?’ And she says, ‘Yes, I need to get to the stage.’ And I say, ‘Well, who are you?’ And she says, ‘Well, I’m Cloris Leachman.’ ‘Oh, Okay!’”
David continues reminiscing about Ms. Leachman: “She was just a nice lady to work with, she got a standing ovation every night. And the back row, the very last row of the balcony would stand up to applaud her and set off the smoke detectors. The alarms would go off, and people would look around like, ‘What is this?’ But they’d continue to applaud.”
David also tells the legend of the unnamed actress who supposedly vanished backstage one night before her cue. As the story goes, she was waiting to go on stage, dressed in a black taffeta gown, and suddenly ran back up to her dressing room to get a folding hand fan she’d forgotten. She didn’t return for her cue, and her understudy took her place. After the show, she was nowhere to be found. Some folks say she’s still around, and makes herself known with the whisper of taffeta fabric and the phantom smell of rose perfume. David says he’s not sure he believes in ghosts, but one time he was sitting in the audience during intermission:
“And all of a sudden the perfume just went wafting by. And I just kinda snickered to myself. And the man leaned over these two seats and he says, ‘Did you smell that?’ I say, ‘Smell what?’
He says, ‘Perfume or something, like roses.’ I say, ‘Yeah, I did.’ He says, ‘Wonder where that came from?’ I say, ‘I have no idea.’”
The Victoria Theatre is offering tours throughout the year as part of its 150th anniversary celebration.
Lauren Shows is a WYSO Community Voices producer and resident of Yellow Springs. Culture Couch is WYSO’s series on arts and creativity in the Miami Valley.