An unidentified author in 1953 cautioned late night visitors to the area around Seventh and Ash to be on the lookout for a sad old ghost with a trace of grease paint on its face.
Writing in the Nov. 15, 1953, edition of the Plainview Sunday Herald, the scribe, perhaps editor H.S. Hilburn, explained, “He wouldn’t harm a soul — this lonesome little fellow — he’s been hanging around for nigh on to 33 years (since about 1920) and about the only evidence of himself he ever gives is a long, drawn out sigh in the deep of night. The sigh echoes among the packing crates in the old buildings.”
The haunted building in question was owned in 1953 by the H.O. Wooten Co. of Abilene, and used for grocery storage. Today, it’s the Sawaya Building, and houses a quilt shop and business offices. “But in 1910 when it was built,” the 1953 article explains, “it was known as the Schick Opera House and was used for theatrical productions. Schick built the building himself and leased it for community events.”
The 1953 article relied heavily on the memories of W.J. Klinger, who was Plainview’s official U.S. Weather Bureau cooperative observer from 1915-49. Those duties have been handled by the Plainview Herald since 1964.
Klinger has had many ties to the old Schick Opera House — he ushered there, he played in the orchestra for numerous productions and sometimes trod the boards — performed on stage — himself.
During that era, Vaudeville was in its heyday and traveling acting troupes often played there for two or three days out of a week. Klinger said stock companies often came for a week at a time, presenting a different play every night. Some of the well-known plays included “East Lynn” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
In addition to out-of-town talent, local productions included talent shows, light operas and minstrel shows.
“Many men and women still living in Plainview can recall taking part in those shows,” said Klinger, who died Jan. 28, 1957, at age 74. “I don’t mean to seem to be bragging on our town then, but we sure did have a wonderful chorus. People from all over the area would come to hear the programs.”
As an opera house, Klinger said the building would seat about 1,000, “and lots of times we’d be sold out in advance for every night. There was a big stage, orchestra pit, a balcony and a curtain with advertisements on it. And the acoustics — you could hear a whisper on the stage clear out into the lobby.”
But with the decline of vaudeville, the opera house’s fortunes began to wane as the touring stock companies went on permanent hiatus. Still, Klinger said, the building continued to be used for local talent shows and any outside entertainment which came to town. In 1920, movies were occasionally being shown in the building.
“Some of the people connected with local motion picture theaters objected,” Klinger said. “One day some of them said they had seen the roof leaking and that the building wasn’t safe. It’s never been officially condemned by the city, but it’s been sort of unofficially considered so ever since.”
But Klinger felt otherwise.
“Why, it’s as sound now as the day it was built,” he told the Herald. “People around here were pretty proud of that building when it was new. I was working at the Santa Fe yards then, and watched the materials come in. They were shipping in and there was more weight of steel in that building than there was sand and concrete. It would take an atomic bomb to blow up that building, and then it would blow it up in chucks.”
The 1953 article noted that the building had changed hands several times through the years, but mostly had been used as a warehouse. Various owners had the outside covered with stucco, tore out the balcony, took up the seats, put a false floor down even with the stage, and took out the curtain. As a result of that work, little remained to show its original use.
The Herald noted that Plainview Civic Theater considered purchasing the building when it was put up for sale in 1952, in hopes of renovating it as a place to present the group’s stage productions. However, the asking price of $25,000 — more than $220,000 in today’s dollars — was too much for the organization.
Even though the structure wasn’t destined to be restored to its former beauty or purpose, the unnamed journalist 60 years ago suggested, “If you are very cautious and don’t make a sound, and you scratch a tiny hole in the dust of a window just at midnight some night, you might get a glimpse of Little Eva going through her death scene among the packing boxes on the old stage.
“And, if you press your ear very hard against the floor, you might catch an echo of a song and the thunder of a thousand hands clapping — followed by the long, tired sigh of the Ghost of the Plainview Opera House.”