The Pulse Opera House in Warren, Indiana was built in 1884 by Captain Silas Pulse, a Civil War veteran who was known as “Cap” to his friends. Captain Pulse was a wealthy merchant in Warren, being part owner in the mercantile firm of Pulse & Thrash. A 1902 history characterized him as a “broad-minded man of the world, alive to all that interests and benefits his fellows…a public spirited benefactor.” His concern for the public welfare was demonstrated when he replaced the Pulse & Thrash wooden structure with a brick building which housed his new store and a public hall.
The first floor contained the general store, with a lady’s dry goods department, a men’s department, and a shoe department. Behind the building stood the Pulse Millinery Store and the Pulse Grocery Store.
The Pulse Opera House was located on the second floor. At the top of the wide stairway leading to the theatre stood the ticket window from which tickets could be purchased the night of the performance. The sale of tickets was usually handled through Hickerson’s Drug Store or Wuersten’s Jewelry Store. Beyond the ticket window and the large double doors (which served as the only entrance into the house) was a backstage door, over which actors, singers, dancers, and musicians left a lasting impression by carving their initials.
Inside, the house was divided in half by eight slender poles which, in 1901, were painted an “invisible green” in order to make them less noticeable. Gaslights, and later electric lights, hung between the poles. Along the outside walls were long, narrow windows which were bare during the gaslight years, but covered by panels when electric lights were installed.
Seating was provided by wooden chairs which could be folded and removed for dances. The back two-thirds of the house was elevated, providing suitable sight lines. On either side of the hall sat two potbellied stoves. The walls were stenciled with a lacy pattern and the ceiling had large ovals painted in the four corners of the house. Within these ovals, golden cherubs peeked out from behind painted clouds.
The stage was equipped with roll drops and an act curtain. The side flats were mounted in units that were grooved and folded down from the side walls. (Reportedly, these units never worked very well, and the flats had to be held in place by stage hands.)
The first mention of scenery being painted especially for the opera house was in 1886. The artist was Colonel A. Newton Field, manager of the Field & Hathaway Comedy Company, who was in Warren to direct an amateur production of the Gallery Slave.
Prior to 1898, lighting on the stage was provided by gaslights, which were mounted down the sides of the proscenium arch and on the backstage walls. There were also gaslights in the auditorium, which caused frequent problems. In 1892, a lady who was standing near the gas jets, had the misfortune of having her hat catch on fire. (The fire was extinguished before any real harm was done.)
After 1892, the gaslights were replaced by electric lights so that, according to the Warren Republican, “instead of the dark, gloomy walls and hot flickering lights casting dreary shadows over an otherwise cheerful audience, the large room will be bright and handsome.”
These “cheerful audiences” were actually a rowdy bunch who had definite ideas about what they liked. Within the opera house, noise from members of the audience was often a major problem. A group known as the “Warren Boys” apparently had a high pitched scream for which they were well known. When asked if the scream was used to show dissatisfaction, Sam Good, grandson of Captain Pulse, replied “No. Just enthusiasm.”
The Pulse Opera House was an integral part of the community, serving as a town meeting hall, dance hall and theatre. It was a place for Democrats and Republicans to argue and smoke cigars while waiting for election results, which arrived by wire on a line that had been strung from the train depot to the opera house. It was there that oil workers from Montpelier, Indiana attempted to set up an oil workers union, and medicine men, complete with Indians and snake eaters, sold tonics guaranteed to cure all ailments known to mankind. Buffalo Bill Cody, William Jennings Bryan, and Paul Dresser (composer of On the Banks of Wabash) all performed there. The most popular activities in the opera house, however, were the traveling theatrical companies.
The companies that played in Warren arrived at first by horse and wagon, but later by railroad. The repertory companies arrived in town with enough material for a one week run, with a change of bill nightly and a matinee on Saturday (generally seven shows). Melodrama was the mainstay of most companies, although it was hardly ever called by that name. Titles such as “scenic productions, ” “entertainment’s” and “serio-comedies” usually indicated a melodrama.
Opera house management was generally provided by merchants in town who scheduled engagements. From 1884-1901 Charles Wuersten, a local jeweler and musician, served as manager of the Pulse Opera House. From the beginning, Charles Wuersten apparently tried to establish quality performances in Warren. In addition to performing with a Christian Choir, the Warren Band, and singing as guest with traveling companies, Charles Wuersten also frequently staged and starred in amateur operations at the opera house.
Charles was not the only member of the family to have stage aspirations. In 1898, Miss Dai Wuersten had her ambition to become an actress gratified when she joined the Maude Stetson Company (later known as the Seldon-Stetson Company). She was 14 years old at the time. The Seldon-Stetson Company was only the first of many companies in which she would appear. She returned to Warren with the Little Egypt Burlesques (the original “Hootchy-Kootchy girls”), the Havelin Stock Company, the City Sports Company, the Royal Prisoner Company, and the Real Window Brown Company. Her appearances in town always attracted special interest and the companies were generally described as being strong.
In 1901, Charles Keller, Captain Pulse’s son-in-law, became the new manager of the opera house. For years to come the opera house was called “Keller’s Opera House” as often as the “Pulse Opera House.” Gone were the “change of bill nightly days” as companies brought in “one night only” shows. Charles Keller brought in far fewer theatrical companies; instead he opened the opera house up for a variety of home entertainment’s. When Captain Pulse died in 1913, Charles and his wife, Dehn, inherited the theatre which he continued to manage for some time thereafter.
As the traveling companies began to disappear, there was an attempt to turn the Opera House into a movie theatre. For two or three years, Warren Oliver showed “picture shows” in the evenings when the hall was not used for other purposes.
In 1926, a new school building (present site of the Knight Civic Center) was opened in Warren. One of the features of the new facility was a stage that could be used as a part of a gymnasium or a large meeting room. Thus, most of the opera house activities, such as commencements, home talent shows, school plays and lectures, were held in this new building and the curtains, roll drops and other stage equipment were moved to the stage of the school.
Although the opera house no longer served as the town meeting hall, it continued to be used for dances as well as an occasional home talent shows well into the 1940’s when the local Kiwanis Club took it over. In due course, the stage was boarded over and converted into a kitchen for use during pancake suppers. Toilets were also built on the stage, and the raised seating was removed and a basketball hoop installed. The ceiling ovals were painted over and the gaslight trough on stage was covered. The Kiwanis Club used the hall until the early 1970’s when it was closed to the public.
From 1970 until 1986 the opera house was used for storage. In November of 1986, however, a group was formed to restore the structure and recapture some of the glory of its earlier days. The stage was reconstructed, the ceiling ovals uncovered, and seating reinstalled. Under the direction of Cynthia Smyth-Wartzok and Ron Wartzok, the opera house has operated as a not-for-profit summer theatre, specializing in melodramas, comedies, and musicals. Combining the history of the theatre with local and area talent, the Pulse Opera House once again is playing to enthusiastic audiences in Warren, Indiana.