Gebhart’s Opera House: Remembering Dayton’s once-grand theater at Fifth and Main

Gebhart’s Opera House was a grand building at Fifth and Main streets that entertained people in Dayton first with live shows and then as a transformed movie theater from the 1870s to the 1960s.

William F. Gebhart was a businessman who established himself as a “practical tin and slate roof” construction contractor and a dealer in tinware.

» PHOTOS: Looking back at Gebhart’s Opera House, later known as Mayfair Theatre

» Dayton’s Goddess of Liberty, once a downtown relic, stood over Fifth and Main for 90 years

In the mid-1850s, galvanized sheet metal was introduced to the construction world, and Gebhart was quick to realize its potential. The new business brought him great prosperity.

Just a few months later, 350 people died in a New York theater fire on Dec. 8, 1876. Gebhart, horrified by the news, ordered a halt to construction while fire safety measures were evaluated. The resulting installation of sprinklers was the first of its kind for any public hall in Dayton.

It was the second building in Dayton to include “opera house” in its name. The first was the Turner Opera House at the corner of First and Main streets. It was eventually known as the Victoria.

The decorative facade featured an elaborate dome and iron front crafted out of sheet metal, which was “painted a soft cream color and then rough sanded to give it the appearance of sandstone,” according to Dayton historian Curt Dalton.

The auditorium was on the second floor and was reached by the center entrance staircase. Special attention had been given to the acoustics which proved to be exceptional.

A statue representing the Goddess of Liberty was placed atop Gebhart’s Opera House on July 3, 1879, as part of the city’s Fourth of July celebrations. Made of malleable zinc, it was 11 feet high and weighed 500 pounds. The goddess stood with her right hand resting on the sword of justice, and her left extended with the laurel wreath of victory.

In 1889, the building was renamed Park Theatre. The first motion pictures shown in Dayton were screened there.

The Park name lasted until 1906, and then the building became the Lyric. It remained a motion picture house for a while, but then the novelty of movies started to fade and vaudeville and burlesque took their place.

Attorney Phillip Bradford purchased the building at that time and renamed it the Mayfair. The Mayfair usually had four shows a day, two in the afternoon and two at night, and a midnight show on Saturdays.

The theater closed its doors in 1968 while under the name Mayfair. The following year the structure was destroyed in a fire.

Today, the Dayton Convention Center sits at the site.

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