Circus people are abundantly superstitious and have long lists of Big Top fetishes: Don’t whistle under the Big Top. Enter the ring right foot first. Carry an elephant hair in your pocket. When you’re on parade, never look back. That sort of thing.
It’s a wonder that an old circus man like John Robinson built an Opera House with 13 windows on each floor. What was he thinking? “Uncle” John Robinson certainly knew about circus superstitions. He was the founder of a circus dynasty that lasted four generations from 1842 to 1911. The John Robinson Circus was based in the West End and later in Terrace Park.
Uncle John was 61 years old and semi-retired when he decided to build his opera house on the northeast corner of Ninth and Plum streets. The Cincinnati Enquirer [21 December 1872] was enthusiastic:
“The new theater is one of the best designed for the comfortable seating of a large number of people ever built.”
That article contained some statistics that would later prove to be dangerous. The theater had almost 1,800 seats, according to the Enquirer and “give standing room to nearly as many more.”
That was the situation on 5 February 1876 when a massive extravaganza entitled “The Great Republic Allegory and Tableaux” was staged at Robinson’s. A common and popular entertainment at the time, allegories presented huge casts – hundreds of actors and supernumeraries – reciting patriotic poetry in celebration of the reunited nation following the Civil War. This particular production had local connections. It was largely written by J.W. Miller of the Cincinnati Commercial newspaper and featured hosts of Cincinnati schoolchildren. The Saturday matinee drew a massive audience and the Cincinnati Times [5 February 1876] described a recipe for disaster:
“Every inch of the theater was occupied, and a dense crowd was pressing and surging about the staircases and in front of the doors.”
The house, in other words, was oversold beyond capacity, with all standing room occupied and all stairwells jammed with patrons vainly seeking somewhere to see the stage. This assembly was largely composed of women and children, a frustrated throng overflowing every inch and, as the calcium lamps were ignited to cast a ruddy glow across the stage, the unthinkable ensued:
“ . . . some boy in the gallery, either through mischief or ignorance raised the cry of ‘fire’ as the red light from the colored fires flashed out from the wings. Somebody in the audience took up the cry of fire, and it was re-echoed from near the door by some who could catch a glimpse of the red glare from the stage. There was an immediate rush for the large front doors.”
The fatal stampede that day became known as “The Horror.” Nine women and children were crushed to death in the choked hallways of the theater, trampled by a crazed mob blindly rushing for the exits. In a situation reminiscent of the 1979 Who concert disaster at Riverfront Coliseum, the performers and the audience nearest the stage had no idea of the tumult in the entry foyer. The Cincinnati Times claimed the deaths were caused by cowardly men:
“Men, rendered brutes by terror, struck down the helpless women and children in front, or climbed over their heads to the top of the staircase and precipitated themselves upon the poor writhing, bleeding, screaming, dying mass of children and women in the hallway. No men were hurt that we can hear of at the time of writing this . . . “
On Monday, amid reports of funerals and inquests, newspapers ran heart-breaking inventories of recovered items available for claim at the Opera House, including shoes, shawls, overcoats, galoshes, hair switches, gloves, veils, handkerchiefs and hats.
The jinx returned a little over 20 years later on 15 October 1897. The main attraction was a melodrama, “Dangers of a Great City” by Alfred Kennedy. Between acts, vaudeville entertainers kept the audience engaged. During one of these intermissions, Alice Opie, a child impersonator, earned thunderous applause for a routine based on Richard Outcault’s comic strip character, the Yellow Kid. The whole building shook. According to the Cincinnati Post:
“As the little actress appeared at the wings to bow her acknowledgement there was a cracking sound. A stream of dry mortar and plaster poured from the ceiling. Then there was another, more terrible crash.”
A large dome, positioned over the orchestra seats, fell from the ceiling. The theater was plunged into darkness and the audience scrambled over debris and bodies to locate any exits, and then the remainder of the ceiling fell onto the seats below.
Five people died – an amazingly light mortality roll given the theater’s capacity. Another 25 or more suffered serious injuries requiring medical attention, among them broken limbs, skull fractures and internal hemorrhaging.
Investigators blamed the lumber used in constructing the Opera House. They blamed the design of the roof, and they blamed the new Edison Electric plant down the block for sending vibrations through the building. Some nearby residents, according to the Cincinnati Post, put it down to hoodoo:
“For a month these residents have gathered in groups at Plum Street, near the stage door and discussed the building which, they say, is a hoodoo. The story was started with them several weeks ago, when some one in the alley discovered that on the third and second floors of the building along Plum Street, there are 13 windows.”
The building was extensively rebuilt, according to the Post [15 December 1897] and renovated specifically to combat the jinx:
“Some changes in the windows of the west end is contemplated, to dispel the alleged hoodoo incident to the presence of rows of 13 windows.”
It didn’t work. Robinson’s Opera House never regained its audience despite sporadic announcements of promising acts. The ground-floor restaurant and several floors of offices remained occupied, but the vast auditorium sat idle.
And the jinx was still active. In 1910 a team of safecrackers used nitroglycerin to blow a safe in one of the offices and made off with $1,400 in bills and bags of coin. During the Great Depression, the Opera House became a flophouse and a soup kitchen, attracting lines of unemployed men instead of fashionable patrons.
The old Opera House was demolished in 1936 and replaced by a gas station, auspiciously named “Good Luck Service.” The coincidence was not lost on the Cincinnati Post [5 August 1936] which opined:
“After years of occupancy within the rafters of the old Robinson’s Opera House, the jinx that has haunted Ninth and Plum streets has finally been laid to rest.”
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities.