Bernard C. Apel was an enterprising man. He came from Germany to the United States about 1874, and soon started an
undertaking business. In 1877, he bought a large house, and by 1888, he had constructed the large slate-roofed brick
building still standing at the corner of Apel Place and Oakland Street, next to the railroad tracks in the North End of
At the time, the funeral business, or undertaking as it was called, was often associated with the furniture business, and indeed Mr. Apel’s building accommodated both enterprises. An advertisement with his picture declares:
“B.C. Apel, Dealer in Furniture, Carpets, Paper Hangings & Curtains, Crockery, Lamps, Glassware, Stoves, Ranges, Clocks, Trunks and Traveling Bags. Pictures and Picture Frames, Organs, Pianos and Sewing Machines. Upholstering in all its Branches, Undertaking & Embalming, Hacks & Hearse Furnished.”
The ad also says that Mr. Apel is “Proprietor and Manager, Apel’s Opera House,” an establishment that hosted local church groups’ bazaars and plays, school graduations, and traveling shows. The opera house occupied the second and third stories of the four-story (five-story on the gable end) building, extended 90 feet, and had a gallery for the audience.
Mr. Apel solicited entertainment acts in national publications, such as in this December 1888 New York Clipper advertisement:
“Apel’s Opera House is Now Ready for Business. Great improvements in lighting and heating. Surrounding mills in full working order. Times good. Terms reasonable. For further information, apply to B.C. Apel, Manchester, Co.”
Another ad, about 1891:
“Call for open dates. Comedy Co. preferred. Stage with all proper scenery. Hall with all latest improvements. Seating capacity 1000. Population, 10,000. Town booming. Special attention given to company.”
At the other end of town, Cheney Hall was also busy with community and entertainment events, but didn’t rent out to profit-making concerns, so the various “theatricals” and lectures were sponsored by local fraternal, religious, temperance, and other non-profit groups. According to an 1887 Hartford Courant newspaper article, “The Cheneys have adhered to the rule, made when they built the hall, never to let it… Theatrical companies have therefore been unable to secure it direct, although hundreds have tried to do so.”
Cheney Hall wouldn’t have hosted a show trying to sell the latest cure-all, which could be enjoyed at Apel’s. The
Historical Society’s “Old Manchester Storytellers” book includes this excerpt from a 1971 interview with Agnes Fuller
Hayes (born 1888):
“Apel’s Opera House was used for everything…people selling medicine – Kickapoo Indian medicine – and they had one or two people dressed up like Indians. Everyone went to that. They sold Kickapoo Indian worm medicine for about one dollar. They peddled that stuff like hotcakes.” Unfortunately, many people wasted money on such nostrums as Peters’ Vegetable Pills and Medicated Lozenges for dyspepsia, cough, worms and all diseases of the stomach, bowels and liver (available at J. B. Williams and Union Manufacturing Co.), and Carter’s Little Liver Pills to cure sick headaches, bilious state of the system, nausea, drowsiness, distress after eating, pain in the side, etc., still advertised in the 1940s at local pharmacies.
Apel’s Opera House was not just a one-night stand for professional road companies – in 1891 a company spent a week
there, according to William E. Buckley’s history of Manchester. “In 1901 a troupe headed by Sidney Drew, a well-known actor
of the famous Drew-Barrymore family, spent several days in Manchester, and prices rose to 50 cents, 75 cents, and $1.”
Buckley (1891-1987) himself remembered seeing “the perennial Uncle Tom’s Cabin” at Apel’s. Burlesque and boxing exhibitions
drew a male-only crowd.
In December 1888, Apel’s hosted the “Wizard Oil Concert and Specialty Company,” and a ball sponsored by the Manchester drum corps to raise money for new uniforms.
In April 1889, John Kelly of Manchester, Fay of Rockville, and Strong of Willimantic gave an exhibition of club swinging at the opera house, in a contest to determine the club-swinging champion of eastern Connecticut.
In January 1890, a poultry exhibition with awards was held at Apel’s with 1000 hens and their cages spread out throughout the hall and on the stage.
In September 1893, the Stanza Club gave a “social,” with Keating’s orchestra.
In March 1894, St. Mary’s Temperance Society held a largely attended dance.
In November 1895, a fair with booths and entertainment was organized by women in the North End interested in a free public library. And the Knights of the Maccabees gave a Thanksgiving eve ball with Coates’s orchestra.
In 1899, the first recorded showing of movies took place at Apel’s for a church benefit.
The New York Times reported on April 4, 1899 that the opera house block was completely gutted by fire, causing a loss
of $50,000. It noted that Mr. Apel had little insurance on the property where he had “conducted an extensive furniture
store, as well as music warerooms.”
The Courant’s report on the fire, April 5, 1899, said the 125x50-foot building cost $15,000, the opera house furnishings were worth $8,000, and furniture, household items, caskets, etc., were worth $10,000. In the same article, the fire caused “a loss close to $30,000.” (Such discrepancies are not uncommon, in fact, The Courant says in most stories that the building was constructed in 1888, but says 1880 in Mr. Apel’s obituary). The insurance covered only $3,000, and there was an encumbrance on the property.
“An exciting feature in connection with the fire was the signaling and holding of an express train by a man [Mr. F. A. Lillie, a school principal] with a lamp with a red globe, and whose act possibly saved the train from destruction,” due to the fire hose being on top of the tracks.
“The Unitype Minstrels, a local organization had the opera house engaged for a minstrel performance tomorrow night and they were having a full dress rehearsal…one of the number heard a crackling sound overhead, and at that time flames were seen issuing from the attic through the pine ceiling. The call of fire was made and some of the minstrels rushed to collect the traps of the company while others ran from the building…the electric lights went out, the hall rapidly filled with smoke and it was with difficulty that some escaped in the darkness…Mr. Apel, who lives close by had gone to bed and was awakened by the barking of his dog…The three hose companies of the north end responded and …the hose carriage came up from the south end. The water pressure was sufficient to get a stream to the roof but owing to the absence of ladders the firemen were unable to check the flames and it was not long before the flames crept to both ends of the roof. The gallery fell while some of the firemen were under it and some of them had narrow escapes. The falling of the gallery left the brick walls without support and portions of the them tumbled over into the burning mass.”
Despite the dire sentence on the opera house, B.C. Apel did rebuild, although the gallery wasn’t reconstructed, and
today it’s difficult to figure out exactly where the stage would have been. The Opera House went on hosting dances,
theatricals, school graduations, and the St. Brigit Church bazaar.
George Apel, the oldest of B.C. Apel’s eight children, applied for a liquor license for an establishment at the building, but when “the Rev. C.H. Barber of Manchester filed a remonstrance against the granting of the license” as reported in The Courant on November 16, 1900, the application was withdrawn. The former town historian, Herb Bengtson, told me there was a saloon in the building at one time.
Bernard C. Apel died at the age of 64, on October 28, 1908, “one of the best known men in town, at his home on Apel Place…having been ill for over a year. While his illness extended over a period covering more than a year, he did not give up until about a week ago. He was then suffering with a complication of troubles and for the past three or four days there was no hope of his recovery….While he had not done much work in this line [undertaking] of late years, he still followed the business until his death….He was a member of Manchester Lodge, A.O.U.W., and Manchester Tent, No. 2, K.P.O.T.M., [fraternal orders] and two German lodges,” per the Hartford Courant obituary.
With declining events at the Opera House, the family put the building up for sale, and in 1911, Lewis Brothers bought the property for a tobacco warehouse, but continued to let clubs and churches use the hall for some years. Apel family members continued to live on Apel Place, and I recall going with my mother to a quaint farm there in the 1950s to buy pansies.
The opera house block later housed Manchester Grain & Coal Co., Bracket & Shaw farm equipment, Allis Chalmers tractor
parts and service, Yankee Aluminum salesroom, and, until about a year ago, Clay Furniture.
The Central Connecticut Co-Op Farmers Association, which produces and distributes feed for farm animals, moved to Apel Place in 1942, and bought the opera house about 1977.
Apel Place has changed dramatically – with the Apel homestead, other houses and small farms making way for parking for the Co-Op. About ten freight cars a week come along the railroad tracks to the Co-Op’s plant.
Don Domina, the energetic general manager of the Co-Op, has been leading a project to preserve the unique building, including adding an accessible bathroom and fixing the roof and floors. He plans to open a farmer’s market on the lower level, although it has been a wet and challenging summer for those trying to grow vegetables. In the fall, there will be fruit from local orchards if all goes well, and maybe goat cheese and other products from small farmers in the area.
The Historical Society salutes Don Domina and the Co-Op for their efforts with the 120-year-old opera house. Long may it continue to serve its community.
Click on each of these images, to see a larger version of it plus additional information:
To see a short YouTube video on the inside of Apel's Opera House, please click: YouTube Video. Note that this will work best with a high-speed internet connection.
Susan Barlow serves on the board of the Manchester Historical Society and leads North End walking tours at various times, starting at Whiton Library, 100 North Main Street. Visit this web site's " Events" page for more information about this and other events of interest.
Find out more about the Co-Op at www.cccfeeds.com.