After the fire of January 1868, the blackened façade of the Academy of Music (formerly the Albany Theatre and St. Paul’s Church) stood alone and forlorn on South Pearl Street for almost two years. There was wide public interest in building a new Academy of Music, but progress came very slowly. At some point in that period, Hugh J. Hastings sold the property to John M. Trimble’s widow, Mary Ann Trimble.[i] Then in March 1869, New York State chartered a corporation named “The Academy of Music in the City of Albany,” whose aim to was issue stock to fund a new theater.[ii] Later that month, three trustees were elected, one of whom was the owner of Albany’s Delavan House, Charles E. Leland, who will figure prominently in this story.[iii]
But it was only in November 1869 that Mrs. Trimble took action, in conjunction with Lucien Barnes, husband of her daughter Ada G. Trimble[iv]. Barnes (the uncle of William Barnes, Jr., head of the Albany Republican organization[v]) had been chief clerk and cashier at the New York State Department of Insurance[vi], and no doubt helped his mother-in-law arrange the issuance of $40,000 in bonds, mortgaged by three trustees, among them (once again) Charles E. Leland.[vii] Mary Ann Trimble leased the theater to Barnes for a period of eleven years at a nominal rate of $1,000 annually, conditioned on his paying the principal and interest of the bonds.[viii]
Barnes hired architect Thomas R. Jackson, who had produced the designs for the Academy of Music six years earlier. The building went up very quickly, and was complete only 51 days after work began.[ix] The day before the grand opening, the theater was opened for the stockholders, with refreshments served by Charles E. Leland’s Delavan Hotel staff.
Of the Opera House itself we cannot speak in too high terms of praise. It is certainly one of the most beautiful places of amusement in the country. The decorations are superb, the fixtures unexcelled, and the entire outfit the best money can buy. No expense has been spared to make it, in all respects and every particular, equal to any of the metropolitan theatres. The private boxes are magnificently furnished – each one being a parlor of itself. In fact not anything is lacking to ensure comfort and pleasure to the patrons of the establishment.[x]
The next evening, December 31, 1869, the new theater opened with a production of Richard Sheridan’s The School for Scandal.
Only four days after the theater’s reopening, a tragedy occurred, when the music director, Conrad Louis Underner, died suddenly during a performance.[xi] “Lewey” was the son of well-known local music Conrad Underner, with whom he had played in the orchestra of the old Albany Theatre.[xii] He was also a composer of several marches. Lewey’s brother, John Underner, was also a composer and organist at St. Paul’s Church in 1847, when it was in the former Albany Theatre.
A highlight of the first season was the production of “Black Crook,” featuring lead dancer Marie Bonfanti. This production played for a full month to standing-room crowds, and seems not to have created the furor in Albany as it had in New York City, despite the then-scandalous sight of women in tights.
The season of 1870-1871 included such stars as
- Joseph K. Emmett (who later built the mansion that became Wolfert’s Roost), playing “Fritz, Our Cousin German”
- Lotta (born Charlotte Mignon Crabtree)
Despite this glamorous season, Barnes was having financial problems. In late 1871, Mary Ann Trimble issued two additional mortgages on the property to allow Barnes to repay Charles E. Leland and Alexander Dickey “for money loaned, and work, labor and services, and material.” Another condition of Barnes’s’ lease was that he was to pay all taxes and water bills. He had failed to do so, and the Albany County Treasurer was threatening to sell the building at public auction if payment was not made.[xiii] Barnes’s financial problems were likely compounded by marital problems: Barnes and Ada Trimble were later divorced.[xiv]
By May 1872, Barnes was insolvent, and was declared bankrupt in July of that year,[xv] his only asset the value of his lease from Mrs. Trimble.[xvi] He left as manager on July 31, 1872, having taken gross receipts of almost $215,000 in the two and a half years of his lease.[xvii] In December 1872, Mrs. Trimble sold the property to Warren F. Leland (on behalf of his brother, Charles E. Leland, and Alexander Dickey, holders of the mortgages on the property), who leased it to Aaron Richardson,[xviii] and later (avoiding complications of Richardson’s pending divorce) to Richardson’s sister, Sarah Phillips.[xix]
In May 1876, having terminated Aaron Richardson’s lease, Warren F. Leland sold the theater to Charles E. Leland.[xx] It is later that year that we see the first advertisement for the Leland Opera House, as it was to be known for many years thereafter.[xxi]
[i] “The Trimble Opera House: Its Legal History – The Curtain Rung Up on the Last Act – A Foreclosure Suit Commenced” Albany Evening Times Dec (probably 27) 1880.
[ii] “The New Academy of Music,” Albany Morning Express 19 Mar 1869.
[iii] “Meeting of the Corporation of the New Academy of Music,” Albany Morning Express, 29 Mar 1869.
[iv] H.P. Phelps, The Players of a Century (Albany: Joseph McDonough, 1880), 376.
[v] “Proctor Sells Leland,” New York Clipper, 21 Jun 1922.
[vi] Phelps, 376.
[vii] Phelps, 376.
[viii] “The Trimble Opera House: Its Legal History”.
[ix] Phelps, 376-377.
[x] “The Reception at the Trimble Opera House,” Albany Morning Express, 31 Dec 1869.
[xi] “Sudden Death,” Albany Morning Express 04 Jan 1870.
[xii] “’Lewey’ Underner – His Early Connection with the Orchestra of the Old Pearl Strreet Theatre.” Albany Morning Express 08 Mar 1868.
[xiii] “The Trimble Opera House,” Albany Evening Times 21 May 1872.
[xiv] Ada Trimble married twice more, both times to actors. A marriage to Harold Forsberg ended in divorce in 1884, after repeated reports of domestic abuse. [One incident is graphically described in the Daily Argus for 5 Jun 1874]. She married for the third and final time to Frederick Bryton in 1887. [“At the Theater,” Trenton Evening Times 16 Oct 1887]
[xv] “The Trimble Opera House: Its Legal History”.
[xvi] “Lucien Barnes’ Bankruptcy,” Daily Albany Argus, 2 Sep 1872.
[xvii] “H.R. Jacobs Opera House,” Albany Evening Times 17 Aug 1889
[xviii] “The Trimble Opera House: Its Legal History”
[xix] “The Opera House: More Litigation,” Albany Evening Journal 30 Nov 1875.
[xx] “The Trimble Opera House: Its Legal History”.
[xxi] Classified advertisement, Albany Argus 26 May 1876