Community Columns

Early Modesto theater oddly designed and hazardous

The residents of little Modesto Village were probably very pleased with their new "performing arts center" when it opened in 1877, at 907 H St. between Ninth and 10th streets. It was a great improvement over "The Theatre" they had been using for six years -- the cleaned-out hayloft of a livery stable on the south side of I Street.

The Theatre's replacement was the town's first dedicated performing arts building. Called Rogers Hall, it was built by banker Stimpson Rogers, who was also the principal owner of the Modesto Water Works. His son would become

the subject of the Rogers Boy Fountain, which stood in the center of the intersection of 10th and I streets from 1893 until 1906, when it was moved to Courthouse Park.

If Stimpson Rogers could return today and see the imposing Gallo Center for the Performing Arts, just a block away from the site of his former hall, he undoubtedly would be flabbergasted.

A comparison of Rogers Hall with today's magnificent downtown structure is mind- boggling. An example is their respective entrances.

The hall was located upstairs, leaving the ground floor for businesses such as the post office, Wells Fargo Express, a barber shop and the Gem Saloon. Its entry was at the rear of the building, which patrons could reach only by walking some 50 feet down a dirt alley. There they climbed an outside stairway attached to a different building on the other side of the alley, then crossed back over the alley on a narrow wooden bridge that led into the hall.

The belles of the day sometimes carried extra clothing and changed when they got upstairs, after dragging their long full skirts through the alley's dirt and mud. The hall's single entrance was just 5 feet wide, making it an acknowledged fire trap.

Compare that to the Gallo Center, with its sweeping ground-level lobby featuring five double-door entrances, each more than 6½ feet wide. The center also has a state-of-the-art automated alarm system, sprinklers throughout the building and huge fiberglass curtains that drop if a fire occurs behind the stages, closing off the stage house from the audience.

In today's center, the Foster Family Theater would be most comparable in size to the old Rogers Hall. The Foster theater seats 444 in luxuriously upholstered chairs; the hall's audiences of about 400 sat on hard-back, uncushioned wooden benches. Without modern heating and cooling, the hall was often depicted as "intensely hot in summer and freezing cold in winter."

Historian Sol Elias used the word "curious" to describe its small, triangular stage, jutting out into the room and circled by gas footlights -- no match for today's grand stage.

As for parking, the Gallo Center has parking in municipal garages on 11th and 12th streets, plus other nearby garages and lots. Where did Rogers Hall audiences "park" their horses, carriages and carts? Undoubtedly, they used the city's hitching posts on 11th and Ninth streets and later some on H Street.

A hit musical or drama at the popular Rogers Hall most likely led to horse traffic jams on the dusty-in-summer, muddy-in-winter streets.

Bare is author of several books about area history and the official historian of the McHenry Mansion. E-mail her at columns@modbee.com.

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