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C. D. Hess English Opera Company: A Chronology

by Stephen E. Busch

Of the many touring opera companies in America during the 1875-1900 period, few traveled as extensively as C. D. Hess, and few were better known by those in the trade and by the public. Yet, Hess is not an entry in numerous reference books where one might expect to find him, and the Internet has limited information.Thus, a chronology of C.D. Hess's theatrical/musical life is difficult to establish by this writer with limited resource materials; it is very tentative and not complete.

C.D. HessDuring his lifetime he was known as C.D. Hess; his first name rarely appeared-- or appears-- in print. In books, magazines, newspapers and theatre programmes he was named C.D. Hess or simply Hess. It was in the Las Vegas, NM Optic, an 1884 issue, that this writer first noticed a rare occurrence of  "Chas. D. Hess" in an announcement of his company's performance there in the Ward-Tamme Opera House. Even in an expansive obituary in The La Porte Daily Herald, Feb. 16, 1909, he is referred to as C.D. Hess or Hess, never Charles Hess! Is there another opera impresario of this period whose first name is so rarely mentioned?

"The Hess English Opera Company between 1877 and 1890 was seen in all parts of the United States, Canada and Mexico, and performed about everything popular in the line of grand and light opera. Emma Abbott, Marie Stone, Julie Rosewald, George Conley, Isadora Martinez, Joseph Maas (England's greatest tenor at the time of his death), William T. Carleton and many other popular members of the profession got their start in opera at the hands of this management."

So wrote C.D. Hess at the conclusion of an extensive article in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1901 when he had been in retirement for about ten years. However, long before retirement Hess and Clara Louise Kellogg organized an English Opera Company in 1873. In her Memoirs Kellogg quoted at length from a press notice about this company and Hess who was described as "one of the longest-headed and hardest-working men of business found in even this age and nation." This operatic venture lasted for three years. For well over 20 years he was known as an opera impresario. His companies did tour as widely as any, and his ear for vocal talent did cause him to promote the careers of many singers who became start attractions of the grand and comic operatic stage.

C.D. Hess was born at Cohocton, N.Y. in 1838 and died February 15, 1909. He claimed that at age 13 he had entered the theatrical profession, and when 21 [1859] was a theatre manager. He had married Julia Grover in 1858 when he was 20 years old. This writer believes that Julia was a sister of Leonard Grover, the latter was only four years older than Hess, but already very active in leasing theatres and booking entertainments. Multi-talented, Grover also wrote plays (Our Boarding House, 1877) and had acting companies, owned and leased theatres, and headed a few opera companies; his Grand German Opera Company presented Faust and Tannhäuser in Philadelphia and New York. Further, when Grover opened the old Odd Fellows Hall in Washington, D.C. in 1860, he put Hess in charge. This was just before the days of Grover's Washington National Theatre, which Hess also managed until he moved to Chicago. At the time of his marriage, Hess had just sung with the Marsh & Ellsler Company. Soon after this he sang with Rosa Devries, Luigi Arditi conducting. However, Hess had contracted a severe cold but still attempted to sing, and this "ruined his voice forever."

When the Civil War broke out [1861] he aided in the organization of a military company at Danville, N.Y. [near Cohocton] and he became a captain, in which position he served three years, going through many of the more important battles.  He was in both battles of Bull Run. He was never seriously wounded.

Before the war was over Hess was back in the capital managing Grover's Washington National Theatre. He was 26 years old in September, 1864 when, as manager of the Theatre, he sent a letter to President Lincoln stating: "Mr. Leonard Grover presents his compliments to His Excellency the President, and solicits the honor of reserving for him a private box for this or tomorrow evenings performance of Mr. & Mrs. Barney Williams. Very respectfully, C.D. Hess, acting manager." The Lincolns had attended shows at Grover's, and Leonard had numerous personal contacts with the President, but the Lincolns did not attend either night.

Less than seven months later the Lincolns were again invited to Grover's, but Mrs. Lincoln had opted suddenly for Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre. Leonard Grover, Jr. and Tad Lincoln were friends, and the boys were sent on to Grover's Theatre to occupy the President's box there. During the show at Grover's it was C.D. Hess who took the stage to announce that President Lincoln had been shot at Ford's Theatre.

During the war Hess had become a good friend of James E. Murdoch, a nationally known actor, and in 1865 Hess and family and Mr. Murdoch moved to Chicago. At first Hess managed Mr. Murdoch on an extensive speaking tour followed by a three-week play run at Chicago's new Crosby's Opera House [April 1865].

In January of 1866 Leonard Grover's theatre company appeared at Crosby's Opera House through the efforts of C. D. Hess. Then Grover brought another company to Crosby's in May. Twenty performances were sold out. By then Uranus Crosby, owner, had enough confidence in Hess to offer him a five-year lease to operate the House. He accepted in partnership with his brother Dr. O.H. Hess and Benjamin Lowell. However, Hess was the general manager and booked all shows. He was now well known and respected in Chicago's theatrical world, and his activities were occasionally noted in eastern newspapers. This writer knows nothing of Dr. Hess's professional abilities, but apparently he knew enough of theatrical operations to manage Crosby's when C.D. made trips to New York to book new shows or even to manage some opera productions out east! Records and news stories indicate that he was relentless in his occupation and duties and "played them for all they were worth."

Hess's managerial tenure of Crosby's Opera House truly was a mixed bag. From May 1866 to April 1871 he was a sometime-manager, sometime-not-manager of Crosby's. There were months at the beginning when with no theatrical activity as Uranus Crosby Crosby sought a plan to keep ownership of the House and to relieve his huge debt. Then Uranus' cousin Albert came back to Chicago and eventually got ownership of the House. The endless challenges of keeping the House alive and of all the people involved, including Hess, make for a fascinating and complicated story told in engrossing detail by Eugene H. Cropsey in his book Crosby's Opera House: Symbol of Chicago's Cultural Awakening. Albert Crosby, a key player in this dramatic story was/is the great, great grandfather of author Cropsey. Any opera devotee should read this book about a great opera house.

Nonetheless, Hess and Company, as he called his managership, brought some famous opera singers and companies to Chicago, some of which he actually managed during their Crosby's appearance such as the Richings Grand English Opera Company in March and November, 1868; the Parepa-Rosa Grand English Opera Company in October, 1869 and April 1870; and Richings again in combination troupes with Parepa Rosa in October 1870 and March 1871. The next month Hess's five-year contract expired, and he was ready to move on. Too, the great Chicago fire occurred the following October and Crosby's Opera House was consumed in the conflagration. It was not rebuilt. Hess had planned for an 1871 fall tour of the Parepa-Rosa and Caroline Richings combination troupe but all his materials were lost in the great fire.

The 1870s were challenging times for Hess. His losses in the Chicago fire were reported to be serious. The epilogue in Cropsey's book states that the fire left Hess virtually broke. Yet Hess bought a vinegar factory in 1872 but was forced to sell out the same year. For a moment he really left the opera world! He then moved to New York and after a few years organized an English Opera Company. Like many other opera company directors, he felt the future of opera in America was its performance in English.

Hess took his company at least as far west as Salt Lake City and probably went on to California because in 1876 he played in SLC on June 24-30 and again August 27-28.

In September he formed an opera company that featured Clara Louise Kellogg and Jennie Van Zandt; it toured successfully for a few years. Again he went west at least to Salt Lake City; records indicate a June 13-16 appearance for Hess in 1877. M.B. Leavitt claimed that Hess was in partnership with Maurice Grau for these tours with Kellogg.

During October and November of 1877 the Hess English Opera Company gave a "preliminary operatic season in the magnificently redecorated Fifth-Avenue Theatre" in New York. Ambroise Thomas' A Summernight's Dream was featured for the first time "on any English stage." The fine cast included Emelie Melville, Zelda Seguin, William Castle and Henry Peakes. For all the years that she sang opera and in so many different roles, Zelda must have had a voice of iron!

In 1878, apparently at Emma Abbott's leading, Hess formed an English opera company around her that toured for one year very successfully, both musically and financially. Hess furnished everything and gave Abbott a certain percentage of the receipts. An extensive tour included two stops in Detroit on September 30-October 2, and December 9-11. Hess then, supposedly, sold out his rights to Emma's new husband, Eugene Wetherell, for $10,000.

During November 1880 the Hess English Opera Troupe, in partnership with Max Strakosch, appeared at the Opera House on Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. The cast included Marie Roze, W. T. Carleton, and Conly and Peakes, all solid leads.

Much of 1881 must have been spent in organizing another English company for touring and in just staying in one place for a while. Whether he knew it or not, his most extensive tours were in the next few years. For a few years he called his company the Hess Acme Opera Company; of course, all operas were in English, and he was producing mostly light/comic operas. The Acme Company appeared in Kansas City during December 26-31 with Mascotte, Olivette, and Chimes of Normandy. The cast: Henry Peakes, Mark Smith, Alfred Wildie, James Peakes (yes, brothers), Walter Allen, H.F. Fairweather, Adelaide Randall (who would have her own company later), Marie Wadsworth, Bessie German, Louise Eissing, and Emma Elsner who was called the prima donna of the company by some critics. Some of these had sung before with Hess; Elsner was with him for years. All were experienced. Hess chose his singers carefully.

1882 started where 1881 ended: Kansas City.  Olivette and Mascotte played on January 5 and 6. Hess was here again in the fall, then once in 1883, 1884, and 1890.

When opera companies (or any traveling groups of professional entertainers) were touring, they tended to make as many performance stops as possible. So it was with Hess. After this Kansas City stop, Hess and company entrained for Lawrence, Kansas where they gave Olivette on January 4, 1882. Then it was back on the train for Kansas City to present Olivette and Mascotte again. January 17 and 18 were performance dates in Des Moines, Iowa where Hess appeared again October 27-30. These groups got to know some towns very well.

During 1882 Hess added The Widow to his repertoire. Its composer was Calixa Lavallee who also wrote Canada's national anthem! With libretto by Frank H. Nelson, it was published in Boston in 1881 and premiered at the Chatterton Opera House in Springfield, Illinois on March 25, 1882 by the Hess Acme Opera Company. The text was in English, so Hess added The Widow to his tour that year and performed it in Philadelphia, Detroit, and Chicago. (It was revived in February, 2004 by the Toronto Operetta Theatre.)

Bohemian GirlHess's Acme group began 1883 in-- where else?-- Kansas City on January 10 and 11 with The Bohemian Girl, Maritana, and Pinafore. As in 1882, the troupe's next stop was Lawrence, Kansas for one night, January 13, offering Chimes of Normandy. Hess was back in home territory, Chicago, for one week starting Monday, February 12 at the Grand Opera House, giving, in order, Mascotte, Maritana, Olivette, Martha, Chimes of Normandy, Faust, Pinafore (Saturday matinee), The Bohemian Girl and, again, Mascotte. Abbie Carrington performed magnificently. In her singing of "The Last Rose of Summer" the Chicago Daily News reported that "she has nothing to fear from a comparison of her rendering with that of any other living singer. She gave it last night with all the delicate shading of Clara Louise Kellogg coupled with the tenderness of Adelaide Phillips. The chorus and orchestra worked well, and the whole formed a most satisfactory entertainment."

Hess returned to Chicago in May and Chimes of Normandy made the low point of the tour. Further, this writer has never read such a review of a Hess performance.

"Mr. Hess had evidently wearied of commonplace presentations and attempted something after the Kiralfy style of spectacular. [Brothers Bolossy and Imre Kiralfy were creators of great musical spectacles.] The scenery was splendid; the marching a flat failure. Not content with his own well-trained chorus, Mr. Hess crowded the stage with something like forty amateurs. The noise produced was immense. Several bad balks were made, but perhaps the performance will be toned down this evening. As to the cast, it was poor, with the exception of Harry Peakes and Mark Smith. Miss Chapman acted Serpolette nearly into shreds, but she couldn't sing the score. Miss Leighton must have felt very ill at ease in a part so entirely foreign to her. Mr. Thomas is a bad actor but a delightful tenor."

The 1883 tour included Denver for the first and only time, and the advertisements again featured Abbie Carrington. But now, in July, his group was the C. D. Hess Grand Opera Company with Abbie Carrington in Martha and Faust. Reviews were most complimentary. July 31 to August 2 they appeared in the Cheyenne Opera House with the same operas.

1884 was noted for Hess's tour to Mexico and its sudden collapse, but that should make its own story at another time. Had this tour been completed it would have taken some months to complete. Nonetheless, he had stops in the southwest and, back in Chicago, a serious problem with Abbie Carrington.

July 2-4 the Hess English Opera Company was in Albuquerque: "Albuquerque has gone wild over Miss Letitia Fritch." July 7 they were in Santa Fe, and July 8 in Las Vegas, New Mexico (not Nevada). Then in Chicago, late August, the New York Times reported:

"Pecks of trouble seem to be the lot of manager C.D. Hess of opera fame. Following his disastrous trip to Mexico, he has now on his hands a quarrel with Abbie Carrington, which is giving him no end of annoyance. The sudden substitution of Chimes of Normandy for Martha at the Grand Opera House last evening was the first intimation given the public of an open rupture. It was of a serious nature, as the withdrawal of Miss Carrington and Signor Montegrifo from the Hess company attested. Miss Carrington claimed that Mr. Hess had failed to fulfill his contract and that he owed her back salary. To this Mr. Hess made reply, today, that he did owe her back salary, but that Miss Carrington had treated him badly by threatening on all occasions when things did not run smoothly to throw up her position."

Lillian RussellCharles D. Hess apparently stopped touring for the years 1885-1889, though the Hess Opera Company did play Detroit on October 1-3, 1885 and featured Lillian Russell. His touring did continue in 1890, first in Kansas City, September 15-20, then in North Dakota and Montana, apparently his first time in that area. On October 28 the Hess Opera Company gave Trovatore in Fargo, and The Daily Argus remarked: "To Fargo's fortunate location upon the line of a great transcontinental railroad can be attributed the fact that her public was favored by an entertainment of this magnitude." Two days later Hess did the same opera in the Bozeman Opera House.

On April 8-9, 1891 Hess was back in Fargo, this time with La Traviata and Faust. What other towns were scheduled, this writer does not know. Apparently his touring days and opera productions were over, and he retired to his farm in northern Indiana, not far from Chicago. He then had about 18 years to reflect on a very busy and successful career.

His obituary stated that he had started to write an autobiography but did not finish it. In 1891 he married Mrs. Clara Walton who was prominent in the Eastern Star of Indiana and who had served as president of the Indiana Department of the Woman's Relief Corps. There was no mention what happened to his first wife, Julia, with whom Hess had a son who "died a number of years ago."

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