Against All Odds and Expectations: The Metropolitan Opera House

Metropolitan Opera House – Broad and Poplar Streets, May 5, 1925 (PhillyHistory.org)

During those long decades when Philadelphia’s many performing arts venues were disappearing, every last one of them had a friend in Irv Glazer, who “never met an old theater” he didn’t like. An accountant from Delaware County, Glazer spent much of his adult life assembling a massive research collection which he managed to distill into his book, Philadelphia Theatres, A‑Z. Glazer described in comprehensive detail no fewer than 813 theatres built over the centuries. The vast majority had come and gone and by 1991 Glazer turned over 21 file cabinets packed with “original photographs, dedication programs, playbills, news clippings, and correspondence memorabilia” to the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, he held out only a faint glimmer of hope that one of the biggest, and arguably one of the best—The Metropolitan Opera House at Broad and Poplar Streets—might survive.

Glazer’s descriptions in Philadelphia Theatres, A‑Z stand as a somber record of an all but lost world. His entry for the Met, presented below in its entirety, reads more like a lament than a call to action. But in the last several decades the city’s tune has changed. On December 3, the Met will reopen with Bob Dylan, whose Philadelphia debut was further south on Broad Street 55 years earlier, in October 1963.

Here’s Irvin Glazer on the Met, from Philadelphia Theatres, A‑Z:

METROPOLITAN OPERA HOUSE (Philadelphia Opera House), Broad, Poplar and Carlisle Streets; Capacity 3,482 (Parquet 726, Parquet Circle 616, Grand Tier and Boxes 486, Balcony 904, Gallery 750). The architect was William H. McElfatrick.

The 240-feet wide facade of the Metropolitan Opera House, faced with cream-colored brick, terracotta and marble, was the widest of any of the theatres constructed in Philadelphia. The elaborate cornice is 75 feet high and the tallest portion, the roof above the stage, is 120 feet. An immense cast iron, upward-slanted, marquee with an intricate scrolled decor hung above the five pairs of double doors at the entrance to the main lobby on Poplar Street. The Poplar Street facade is 160 feet wide. Porte-cocheres on Broad Street and parallel Carlisle Street protected the entrances for the Grand Tier box holders. A marquee, similar in design to the Poplar Street projection was originally suspended over the Broad Street stage entrance. There were thirteen separate entrances on Broad Street, mostly within high stone arches, and each with two or three doorways. Three levels of open balconies and arched windows relieve the monumental proportions of the structure. One of the most unusual features of the interior is the Grand Tier or Entresol suspended from the front of the balcony above and containing 28 boxes, each with a private room at the back, and all opening on to a grand curving promenade adorned with numerous marble statuary. This plush area-way overlooks the rear of the orchestra level or Dress Circle and, at eye level. looked across to the 50 feet wide and 140 feet long Grand Salle de Promenade which was built above the main lobby.

Metropolitan Opera House, Auditorium, 1942. (Image courtesy of the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

The walls of the theatre were of deep Tuscan red, relieved by handsome white fresco work. The proscenium arch was in gold leaf and red and topped by two figures holding the Commonwealth coat of arms in their outstretched hands. The ceiling was splendidly decorated, also in red and gold, and featured a great canvas by Chmeilewski in the center of the sounding board. Atop the fourth level of the proscenium boxes are free-standing, heroic size, statues in a group twenty feet in width. A total of 84 recesses, each with an individual crystal light fixture, rose in an arc from the top of the proscenium boxes to form a frame for the sounding board. The facings on the balcony and the six levels of box seats are heavily ornamented in the Louis XIV style of the interior. There were, originally, eighty box seat sections. These together with the wall arches and framed sections in the ceiling were lined with clear bulbs . The orchestra seats had individual arm-rests and featured royal crests atop their backs.

The proscenium is 52 feet wide and 40 feet high with a backstage width of 116 feet. The stage is 5 feet deep from the footlights to the curtain line and 66 feet from that point to the back wall. There were eight sets of permanent border lights. The orchestra pit on several recorded occasions accommodated the combined orchestras of the Philadelphia and Manhattan Opera companies, a total of 160 musicians.

Metropolitan Opera House – Broad and Poplar Streets, May 5, 1925 (PhillyHistory.org)

The Metropolitan Opera House opened as the Philadelphia Opera House on November 17, 1908, seven months and twenty days after the ground breaking. This house was the second of the envisioned chain of opera houses planned by Oscar Hammerstein as competition to the New York Metropolitan Opera Company. The acoustically excellent house was a financial success in its first season. During the second season, five operas per week were being presented in competition with the New York Metropolitan’s two a week at the Academy. There was, also, another large opera house building on Broad Street, (Grand Opera House, Broad Street and Montgomery Avenue). A twenty percent loss during the second season made Hammerstein’s venture insolvent and the house was sold for $1,200,000 dollars to the newly formed Chicago-Philadelphia grand Opera Company and re-named the Metropolitan Opera House. The New York Metropolitan, the La Scala Of Milan, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the local ballet utilized the facilities until 1920 when the Academy of Music again became the premier concert hall. Vaudeville, musical comedy, legitimate stage drama and moving pictures were the varied policies until 1926 when the auditorium was transformed to resemble the interior of a church for the presentation of Max Reinhardt’s “The Miracle.”

In September, 1928, the Stanley Company took over the theatre with a vaudeville and film policy. A projection room was installed on the Grand Tier, and the fourth levels of the stage proscenium boxes were torn out for organ chambers to accommodate the four manual, 39 rank Moeller organ, the city’s largest theatre organ installation. The organ console was placed on a lift in the center of the orchestra pit with the provision that it would be covered when dropped into the basement affording a flooring for that section of the orchestra. This was the fourth and last organ installation. The Stanley policy lasted five months and sustained a loss of $170,000 dollars. The theatre was again used as a concert hall called the “Met”. The “Great Waltz” in 1935 occupied the stage featuring gliding marble columns, dropped crystal chandeliers and a symphony orchestra on a floating platform.

In 1939, a basketball court was formed by extending the stage height into the orchestra seating area. In 1943, the interior was transformed into a ballroom. On March 6, 1948, a fire destroyed part of the interior. The Salle de Promenade became a school for auto mechanics and was double decked. Stores replaced all of the Broad Street access lobbies. The exterior decorative frieze work and pediment decorations were removed. The interior, now with hammered aluminum wainscoting, became a “gospel” church. Because of its accessibility, spaciousness and excellent acoustics, the stage and extended apron were used for rehearsal and recording by the Philadelphia Orchestra. The interior which was designed from plans submitted by Oscar Hammerstein is a tribute to his innate sense and understanding of the inexact science of acoustics. In 1984, the Met is a church only.

[Sources: Andy Wallace, “Irvin Glazer, 74, restorationist’ [Obituary] The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 22, 1996; Irvin R. Glazer, Philadelphia Theatres, A‑Z: A Comprehensive, Descriptive Record of 813 Theatres Constructed Since 1724 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986); Rob McClung, “The Rise, Fall, & Revival Of North Broad’s Opera Palace,” Hidden City Daily, June 14, 2018.]

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