Treading the Boards with a Program for “Ben-Hur” at Mason Opera House, Los Angeles, the week of 14 December 1908

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Published in 1880 and penned by Civil War General Lew Wallace, “Ben-Hur,” subtitled “A Tale of the Christ,” was such a phenomenon that it was second only to the Bible in book sales until the 1936 publication of Gone With the Wind and has never been out of print. It is best known for the 1960 film version starring Charlton Heston that won 11 Oscars, though a 1925 silent edition was also very popular.

Its blending with the life of Jesus with the adventures of the fictional Jewish prince, Judah Ben-Hur, who suffered greatly as he waited for a Jewish leader to defeat Rome not only made the book immensely popular, but a stage version, which premiered in 1899 and which included live horses on treadmills to simulate the famous chariot race, also proved to be an enormous hit.

Los Angeles Express, 16 July 1909.

The highlighted artifact from the Museum’s collection for this post is a program for the week of 14 December 1908 at Mason Opera House on Broadway between 1st and 2nd streets featuring the “stupendous production” of the work. This lavish revival by theatrical impresarios Klaw and Erlanger starred Conway Tearle (1878-1938), who’d performed in the play earlier in the decade and who went on to a successful career in over 90 silent and sound films between 1914 and 1936, as the titular character.

As for the theater, it was completed in June 1903 by John A. Mason, a 24-year old who inherited a fortune from his father Charles, one of the four men who, in 1875, launched the Silver King Mine near Florence in the Arizona Territory southeast of Phoenix. Charles Mason, at the end of the following year, sold his share in the venture for some $300,000 and, in May 1878, brought his wife, Guadalupe Robles, a native of México, to Los Angeles, where 17 acres was acquired “in the sticks” along Figueroa Street. In July, Charles went, with former Los Angeles Express editor and federal land office registrar Henry C. Austin, up to San Francisco to conduct some business with his substantial wealth but succumbed to a heart attack.

Express, 13 June 1903.

Guadalupe, who was 45 years old and pregnant with John, became executor of the estate, while Austin became the guardian for the child, but was then replaced by Aaron Mason, Charles’ brother and who also was married to Mercedes, Guadalupe’s sister. Young John became the inheritor of substantial property, though there was some family turmoil when he was in his teens as, after his uncle died, former Los Angeles County Sheriff James C. Kays took over that role and apparently discovered nearly $40,000 in misappropriated funds.

Still, young Mason took some of his inheritance and, with Fred W. Eaton (no relation to the well-known Eatons of the San Gabriel Valley and Los Angeles), opened a wholesale cigar distribution business in downtown Los Angeles where the modern portion of the Los Angeles Times building is at the southeast corner of Broadway and 1st Street.

Los Angeles Herald, 11 December 1908.

The nascent firm, however, quickly purchased, in November 1901, a nearby property, on the west side of Broadway just south of 1st, and which long was the homestead of the Louis Mesmer family. That year not only marked the onset of the 20th century, but another of the many boom periods that brought enormous growth to greater Los Angeles. The young capitalists announced that they planned to build a theater and office building and were partnering with Henry (Harry) C. Wyatt, who was to lease and manage the performance venue.

Wyatt had a colorful life, hailing from Richmond, Virginia, where he was born in 1849. At just 13, he ran away from home to join the Confederate Army as a drummer boy not long after the onset of the Civil War. He was with the well-known Pickett’s Brigade, which led a charge against the Union Army at the Battle of Gettysburg and the 14-year-old lost his left arm during the carnage. Despite this trauma, Wyatt used his lyric tenor voice to become a featured performer with minstrel troupes, including one he co-owned, and he also had experience working in theaters in his native Virginia after the war’s conclusion.

Los Angeles Record, 10 December 1908.

Wyatt married these two aspects of his life, singing and theatrical management, and, in 1885, just as Los Angeles was poised to enter the great Boom of the Eighties, he first performed in the Angel City. Within weeks, he was hired to manage the Mozart Theatre, which was engaged in what was described as a “theatrical war” with Childs’ Opera House, also known as the Grand Opera House. In short order, Wyatt was hired to run the latter venue and did so until owner Ozro W. Childs died in 1890.

From there, the manager moved to the Los Angeles Theater, which he operated for about fourteen years until the opportunity arose to partner with Mason and Eaton and lease the new theater in their building. There were, however, some lengthy delays and complications in its completion, including problems getting steel for the framing, dampness in the walls that pushed back tinting of them, as well as a lawsuit filed against Mason and Eaton by an architect who claimed he was hired to design the structure but who was replaced by Benjamin Marshall of Chicago with the local supervising architect being John Parkinson, who went to great renown in Angel City building circles.

Herald, 15 December 1908.

When the venue opened on 18 June 1903, the Los Angeles Express approvingly wrote that “in its decoration and equipment, the new place of amusement will compare favorably with the best modern theaters of the West.” Its foyer, for example, was commended as allowing patrons to have a place to stretch their legs during intermission, especially for women with their “retiring room,” while men enjoyed an adjacent smoking room, which was adjudged to be “quaint” but also “of rather limited dimensions.”

Another unfortunate element is that the check room was reached through the smoking room and led to overcrowding when the performance concluded. Also praised was the fact the stage curtain wasn’t plastered with advertisement as was the fashion then, but was “a handsome affair, entirely in keeping with the esthetic furnishing and finishing of the house.” The stage lighting was also adjudged to be excellent.

Managing the box office was “Len” or Lynden E. Behymer, who seemed to be virtually everywhere in the performing arts of Los Angeles during the first decades of the 20th century, though it was unclear how long he was to be associated with the Mason. Another section of the coverage in the Express called the 1,800-seat venue “a model theater” with equipment for presentation that was not bettered anywhere west of the Mississippi River. Decoration was of “a great cheerfulness . . . with nothing of glare or garishness,” while despite of the closeness of the rows of seats, they were raised to such an extent that visibility was still excellent. Pillars, moreover, were placed so that there were no obstructed views, while the cantilevered balcony and gallery helped, as well.

The backstage areas and other elements pertaining to the stage and auxiliary areas were deemed “superb,” including the dressing rooms with running water services. The acoustics were also lauded so that “a pin dropped on the stage may be distinctly heard in the last row of seats.” Seven sets of scenery, made in Chicago, were such that “the scene and act drop is a genuine work of art.” Notably, it was added that “a production of ‘Ben-Hur'” mounted as was recently done in Boston, “would be possible here.” Given the entirety of the structure and venue it was concluded that “in a word it is a first-class show house and one of which this city may well be proud.”

When “Ben-Hur” was brought to the Mason in December 1908 for a one-week run, the response was rather remarkable. The Los Angeles Record of the 10th reported that “hundreds of people are willing to stand in line for hours” to wait to purchase tickets and that “all along the vestibule and down Broadway to Second st., the line extended” so at one juncture there were 500 persons out for most of the morning. These included businessmen, office boys and school girls. The Los Angeles Herald of the following day even published a photo of the crowds waiting for their chance to get their seats for what was said to be “the greatest educational religious play now on the stage.”

A brief notice in the Record of the 12th stated that “a great many stories have been written and a great many plays produced dealing with the earth-life of Christ, but the most impressive religious romance and drama” was with this work. The same paper, also on the 10th, observed that the latest version “is said to be one of the most magnificent of the real as stage craft can make it” through greatly detailed scenery, while the music by Edgar Stillman Kelley, a well-known composer of the day who is now long-forgotten “is illustrative in theme and effective developed.” The famous chariot race and the miracle scene on the Mount of Olives, with 300 men, women and children were particularly noted as highly impressive.

The Herald of the 15th provided a review and wryly noted that “the chariot race, and incidentally a play called ‘Ben-Hur,’ was given last evening at the Mason opera house” and even those who might have bored to tears through the first four acts were aroused by what was “one of the greatest achievements of stage mechanism” and which “probably will hold its appeal long after the play itself has gone the way of forgotten things.”

Yet, despite its remaining popular after nearly a decade, amid greater competition in theatrical offerings, it was opined that “the play and the players seem a bit the worse for wear” compared to when the work premiered in Boston in 1899. Still, it was allowed that the brilliance of the piece was such that “the eye of faith sees it still undimmed and the play still holds the audience in the spell woven of its exalted message, its human appeal and its illuminated atmosphere of spiritual suggestion.”

As for the actors, Tearle “is a good-looking young man with a good voice, considerably at ease, and with some mastery of dramatic technique.” Charles M. Harris playing another main role of Messala was also accounted praise, while Antony Andre as Simonides had “probably . . . the best part in the play.” No one was believed to be mediocre, though it was added that “the scenery needs painting” and “a whole new set of scenery would help considerably.”

Obviously, the impact of “Ben-Hur” continued to resonate strongly through its presentations on the silver screen in 1925 and 1960, though the story does not have the mass appeal in the 21st century that it did in days gone by. As for the program, it has some great advertisements, including for the Christmas season, along with one for Santa Anita Park and the offerings of the Los Angeles Racing Association (though the facility was shut down the next year due to concerns about the deleterious effects of horse racing) and others for automobiles, clothiers, restaurants and upcoming performances at the Mason.

Its owner, however, died in July 1909 at age 30 of the effects of diabetes, a disease which also claimed the life of Wyatt almost exactly a year later. As to the theater, it remained in operation until 1955, after which it was soon razed, and the federal courthouse occupies the site. The Mason Tract is now just north of the University of Southern California, established just two years after Charles Mason acquired his suburban ranch. The Museum collection has other programs from the Mason Opera House, which we’ll be sure to share in future editions of the “Treading the Boards” series of posts on this blog.

Leave a Reply