Once Ventura had an opera house

by Richard Senate

It opened its doors in December of 1904. It once stood in two-story magnificence at 461 E. Santa Clara Street, built by Banker John Lagomarsino. The wooden theater served the cultural needs of the community for well over thirty years. It opened with the musical comedy “Showgirl” performed by a company brought in by train from The Grand Theater in San Francisco.

When built it was called one of the best playhouses in the state. It was owned and operated by Lagamarsino (who lived next door) but in truth the whole community felt it owned the opera house. Two local amateur company’s used the theater between traveling shows. Over the years many well known groups and actors perform on her stage. Once the Famous Georgia Minstrels played here. It was a unique show that featured an all-black cast. In 1908 and 1909 William S. Hart appeared here in the play “The Virginian” before he became a world famous cowboy star in the movies. Actress Gertrude Lawrence played here in the popular Christmas play “Babes in Toyland.” According to Emilio Lagomarsino, the son of the builder, on the night of November 12th, 1908 the first motion picture ever projected in Ventura was shown on a large sheet, with a hand cranked projector.

The next day the Free Press Newspaper wrote; “Charles Walkers moving pictures were a big hit. The pictures were good and the singing first class.” In the days of silent film, the movies were accompanied by musical groups and singing. In truth, silent films were never really silent. In 1918 the classic film “Hearts of the World” was projected at the Opera House but new theaters were being built and by 1913 three silent movie houses were offering films.

The old drafty Opera House was seen as a relic of another time. Traveling companies came few and fewer as they were replaced by films. The old Opera was closed and, for a time, became a Baptist Church. Lastly, Mr. Lagomarino used it as a warehouse for his illegal  liquor business. By the late 1930s it was demolished. Perhaps, it should be re-built in the downtown of Ventura, a place where local amateur theatrical companies could offer plays to the public, foreign and art films shown as well as classics of the silent screen (with organ accompaniment—or an orchestra perhaps?) Maybe travelogues or lectures or surf films could be offered. Maybe an Opera house might once again provide an ideal focal point for the cultural life of Ventura, as it was in the early years of the Twentieth Century?

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