by James Smart
(Ed. Note: The Metropolitan Opera House is a historic opera house located at 858 North Broad St. It has been used for many different purposes over its history. Now known as the Met Philadelphia, the theater reopened in December, 2018, after a complete renovation as a concert venue.)
The fuss that is currently being made about the restoration of the 110-year-old Metropolitan Opera House on North Broad St. is almost as big as the original fuss when the huge theater opened on Nov. 17, 1908.
Oscar Hammerstein, the impresario who financed the new rival to the then 51-year-old Academy of Music, had made a surprise inspection the evening before, and announced approvingly to reporters that he was “tickled to death.” On the site of the former mansion of wealthy steel magnate Charles J. Harrah, he had built the lavish Philadelphia Opera House at Broad and Parrish Streets.
He was challenging New York’s Metropolitan Opera, which had been performing a season annually at Philadelphia’s Academy for years. Newspapers were calling it “the war of the operas.”
Hammerstein’s Philadelphia Opera Company planned to have five performances a week, while the Met had two. He believed that Philadelphians would support more performances.
He was wrong. Maybe there was such a thing as too much opera. The excitement over his plans faded. In 1910, Hammerstein sold his beautiful 4,100-seat opera house to the Metropolitan, which used it into the 1920s.
But on that Tuesday evening in 1908, Hammerstein had accomplished something that shocked traditionalists in Chestnut Hill and the Main Line, and amused Italian American opera lovers in South Philly and working stiffs in Kensington, by luring some of the Philadelphia aristocracy north of Market Street.
For a century or so, the boundary lines of the social life of Philadelphia’s oldest families were from about Pine Street to Market Street. But somehow, Hammerstein’s extravagant yet sedate opera house lured some of what newspapers then called the “Assembly Set” (named for the annual Assembly Ball that dated to the 18th century).
Names of subscribers to some of the 36 boxes in the new opera house included Cassatt, C. W . Henry, Houston, Woodward, Lippincott, Van Renssalaer, Pew, Fitler, Stotesbury, Widener, Clothier, Cramp, Disston, Coxe, Griscom, Pratt and Elkins. Governor Edwin S. Stuart and Mayor John E. Reyburn were in opening night boxes. It seemed that Hammerstein had convinced the elite that the new venue was worthy of their attention.
It was a rare sight, on that November evening, of so many private carriages and motor cars around Broad and Poplar, some pulling back to wait as far off as Girard Avenue.
An estimated 1,600 vehicles let people off at the entrances on Broad and Poplar Streets between 8 p.m. and 8.30. Some 10,000 sightseers were on both sides of Broad Street between Poplar and Parish, watching for celebrities. The north side of Poplar Street was roped off, and the sidewalk was jammed. There were 50 policemen handling the crowds and directing the coachmen and chauffeurs.
Inside, all 4,100 seats were filled, and about another 2,000 people were standing behind the seats and in the aisles. Among the standees were, due to a curious glitch, 350 people who showed up with numbered tickets for which there were no existing seats.
Some society folk, torn between the lavish new opera house and the traditional Academy of Music, divided between the Hammerstein and the Academy performances, going to one for half the performance and then hurrying to the other by carriage or automobile. Some families divided up, some members at one opera house and some at the other.
At the Academy of Music, the New York Metropolitan company was performing “La Boheme,” with Enrico Caruso.
Oh, and almost incidentally, the new Philadelphia Opera Company was presenting “Carmen.”
James Smart is a longtime resident of Mt. Airy, an author of local history books and a former columnist for the Philadelphia Bulletin. He can be reached at jamessmartsphiladelphia.com