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Musicians' Corner July 2016

A Musical Founding Father
July 15, 2016


In today's digital world, music, videos, and entertainment are a mere mouse-click or finger-tap away. With so much technology at our fingertips and so many options for live entertainment, it's hard to imagine a time when music, art, and theatre weren't readily available. But, if we turn the calendar back to Canton's earliest days, music and arts had yet to reach this newly-settled wilderness outpost. Just as a burgeoning America was influenced by an august European culture, early towns and communities across the nation developed their own music, theatre, and arts culture through the influence of their immigrant settlers. Our local community could not lay claim to the rich arts and musical heritage we enjoy today if not for the vision, shrewdness, tenacity, occasional outrageousness, and love for the arts possessed by a single man: Louis Schaefer.

Louis SchaeferLouis Schaefer was born on Christmas Day, 1815, in the French province of Alsace-Lorraine. Louis was not a musician himself (he was trained as a lawyer), but his early years in Europe fostered his love of music and theatre. Upon his arrival in America in 1830, Louis settled in Canton, began a law practice, and quickly rose as an influential member of the community. At the time of Louis's arrival, Canton was little more than a frontier town. The demands of daily life left little time for leisure activities, and access to musical training or any type of theatre was practically non-existent. In 1866, Canton's Civil War veterans formed the Canton Grand Army of the Republic Band (GAR), the first formal musical organization in the city. The band played for events and parades, but had no concert hall to call home. Louis saw this as an excellent opportunity to introduce arts and culture to the community and in 1867, he announced plans to build an opera house. At that time, only one other opera house existed in the state (Comstock's in Columbus), but Louis's proposed plan was met with instant opposition...

In the mid-nineteenth century, Canton was divided between two groups: English-speaking churches that were opposed to the potential sinful influence an opera house would bring, and the German-speaking churches, Catholics, and non-churchgoers who were heartily in favor of the project. A bitter debate arose, but ultimately, Schaefer's plan became a reality and the Schaefer Opera House held its grand inaugural in February of 1868. Louis Schaefer was a colorful and outrageous character; he liked and was liked by people in the entertainment industry and through his persuasion, many famous actors of the day brought their productions to Canton rather than other cities. In one response to city religious leaders' vehement opposition, Schaefer scheduled speaker Robert G. Ingersoll to give an atheistic lecture...on a Sunday evening during church services! On a separate occasion, Schaefer jibed his critics with his own satirical lecture on Noah's Ark - a huge comic success with audiences, albeit not popular with many Canton church leaders. Through Schaefer's efforts, Canton residents enjoyed national touring productions of Hamlet, Merchant of Venice, and Uncle Tom's Cabin, as well as local productions of lesser-known plays, concerts, and touring operas. The arts had arrived in Canton.

Louis Schaefer remained a staunch advocate for the arts until his death in November, 1889. Shortly after his passing, the Schaefer Opera House was demolished and replaced by the Canton Grand Opera House. This structure, much larger and far more ornate, held its grand opening on October 30, 1890 with unanimous approval of Schaefer's former supporters and critics alike. Until its closure in 1945, the Grand Opera House served as the venue for celebrities, artists, and politicians, including the famous tenor Enrico Caruso, and President William McKinley. So, the next time you attend a local band or orchestra concert, or a theatrical production, you're not just supporting our local arts community - you're experiencing a little bit of Canton history...

(Source material: "Canton, A Journey Through Time," by Kimberly A. Kenney)

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