Special Reports

Historical Perspective: Barton Opera House, Armory Hall

A 1907 postcard shows the pride of early day Fresno, the Barton Opera House and Armory Hall (also referred to as the Barton building). It was built in 1889-1890 at the northeast corner of Fresno and J (now Fulton) streets.

In its day, The Barton Opera House was the finest theater between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It opened Sept. 29, 1890, with a capacity audience of 1,600 for the play "Adonis." It was a world away from Fresno's first theatrical performance 16 years earlier, on July 29, 1874, which was held in a tent.

Built for $150,000 by Fresno vineyardist Robert Barton, the Barton Opera House had a plush interior that featured many small electric lights along the high-domed ceiling and lushly decorated box seats.

The stage, 72 by 36 feet, was one of the largest in the state, and the dressing rooms were lit by gas and electricity and had running water.

Some of the era's most celebrated actors played the theater, including John and Ethel Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., George M. Cohan, Sarah Bernhardt, Billie Burke (who later played "Glinda" the Good Witch of the North in the "Wizard of Oz" film) and Maude Adams.

The Armory Hall was a meeting place for California National Guard units. The building also housed a grocery store, wholesale liquor business, Robert Barton's office, and a bicycle shop. (Barton was himself an avid amateur bicyclist of local note, who won San Joaquin Valley championships for three consecutive years and held the record for the one-mile race.)

In 1909, Lewis L. Cory bought the Barton building complex. The section that housed the armory was demolished, giving way to the Cory Building that was built in 1914-'15. The core of that building still stands, though it was substantially remodeled in 1987.

The section with the Barton Opera House was remodeled by Cory in 1917.

In January of 1914, the name of the Barton Opera House was changed to Theater Fresno.

Later it became the Hippodrome.

It was razed in 1928, and a new theater building was erected, becoming home to many entertainment venues over the years, including the State, Esquire, Sequoia and Towne theaters, before being torn down in 1979.

The site of the old theater is a parking lot today.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the Barton Opera House was on the northwest corner of Fresno and J (now Fulton) streets.

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