Greenlaw Opera House

...Memphis' First Grand Opera House



Built in 1860, the Greenlaw was a 4 story Romanesque Opera House that had been built with greatness in mind: a ballroom that could accommodate 300 couples; an opera house with 8 foot wide doors operated by pulleys and counterweights; and an auditorium with fifty foot ceilings. It's 200 foot frontage faced Second Street. The entire ground floor consisted of shops, stores, and restaurants. Several halls were available for meetings, lectures, social events and theatrical productions. But the stage measured only 10 feet deep - sufficient for singers and speakers but limited for actors in a theatrical production. Thus there was generally competition between the Greenlaw Opera House  and The Memphis Theatre for the major productions. 

Greenlaw Opera  ???

In 1872 the Greenlaw was extensively renovated and renamed GRAND OPERA HOUSE.   In the 1872, 1873, 1874 Memphis Directories, it's listed as "Grand Opera House (Greenlaw Building)".  Of course, every building in Memphis seems to have had more than one name at various times, and folks just continue referring to them by their original names. However, it's important to note that the old Orpheum Building at Main and Beale streets was not the first to have the name "Grand Opera House".

The Greenlaw Opera House is listed in the 1865 through 1883 Memphis Directories.  The seating capacity was 2200 seats and after the 1872 renovation, the seating was reduced to 1800.


The Greenlaw burned in 1883 and was not rebuilt. A marker for the Opera House is in place today in Barbaro Alley, just off Second Street.  Although there are numerous historical references to the Greenlaw building in newspapers and magazines, we have not been able to locate a photo or drawing of it.   Finding that elusive drawing or photo has become our major quest since this website began.  We hope this page will alert folks that we are searching for it?


Greenlaw Opera Marker

Marker in Barbaro Alley


Click on small photos to enlarge them. 

J. O. Greenlaw and W. B. Greenlaw

Brothers John Oliver Greenlaw and William Bowden Greenlaw conceived, planned, and built the Greenlaw Opera House.  In 1861, they were ranked as the fourth wealthiest men of property in Memphis.  They had just built the first suburb in the city - "Greenlaw".  For the architect of the Opera, they chose the firm of Fay, Winter, and Foster - the same firm that had designed the New Memphis Theatre three years earlier.  The foundation was laid during the late summer of 1860 and because of the Civil War, the first story wasn't completed until the following year.  And work was sporadic during the first year of the war, but by the end of May 1862, the Daily Appeal reported that "The Greenlaw Building is nearly complete.  The large oriel window at the top of the front is nearly finished...The main roof is rapidly progressing".  >>


        Oriel Window



William B.


W. B. Greenlaw Eugene Greenlaw Fannie Greenlaw 1855 Directory 1859 Directory 1866 Directory

By the early 1860's the brothers had also built the first Memphis suburb just north of the Bayou Gayoso.  It was named "Greenlaw" and  was promoted at the time as "a place away from the hustle and bustle of the city",    The neighborhood attracted mixed-income families and became a good variety of larger homes and smaller shot-gun homes.  Today, the area is becoming popular again.


Greenlaw Suburb

Greenlaw Suburb - Mill Place

Coat of Arms

Greenlaw Dishes

Mill Place 1912 Flood


 J. O. Greenlaw died in 1864 and in his will he directed that his brother "...William B. Greenlaw , who preferred to be called "Bowden", proceed to finish and complete the building at the corner of Union and Second Streets in the City of Memphis, known as "Greenlaws Hall".


1867 Ad Greenlaw - Elmwood J. O. Greenlaw W. B. Greenlaw W. B. Greenlaw Obits ...



Productions and Performers at the Greenlaw Opera House ...     

Bookings at the Greenlaw were limited to the type of theatrical activity that was available from 1866 to 1878.  The season was primarily 40% plays and 26% Vaudeville.  The remaining was equally divided among lectures, concerts, minstrels, and panoramas.  The tableaux company of "Paradise Lost" ran 3 weeks and drew respectable audiences, but during the same season a group of gymnasts attracted standing room only houses.  Vaudeville and minstrel performances were consistently presented.  Comedians, acrobats, magicians, ventriloquists, trapeze performers, concert singers were booked based on their drawing power.   There were twice as many performances by magicians as there were lecturers.


1866  Ad >> Charles Dillon Robert Houdin 1866 Ad >> Paradise Lost Tableau "Paradise Lost"

1867 Ad >> James Carden 1867  >> 1867 Review >> Cal Wagner 1867 Ad >>

<<La Rue Minstrels


La Rue's Misntrels

1864 Ad

1869 Ad

1871 Review

1874 Ad



 Vaudeville and Minstrel Troupes were booked more often than concert artists.  Magicians would pack the house.    To combat the narrowness of the programming, to coax audiences to the Opera House and to boost sales, a "give away" of silverware and other gifts was initiated in 1866 and this would be revived just about every other year.   "Girlie Shows" or shows featuring dancing girls or girls posing as Greek statues became very popular.  The audience was almost entirely male.


1867 Ad >> Classical Statuary 1869 Ad  >> "Undine" 1869  Review>> Can Can Dance

The Greenlaw had its best season in 1872-73.  The theatre had been completely renovated and renamed The Grand Opera House (although everyone still called it "The Greenlaw").  The managers had anticipated the public's taste for novelty, and provided a successful season of dramatic and variety fare.   Audiences flocked to the Opera House.


History of Memphis:  Greenlaw Opera House


1869 >> Harry Macarthy 1870 Ad >> Carlotta Patti 1871 >>

Blind Tom     


1871 Ad >> Christine Nilsson Henri Vieuxtemps Pasquale Brignoli

1873 "Grand" Ad

1874 Ad >>





The 1873 Program (below) had originally been booked into the Greenlaw Opera House.  The Theatre name on the program has been marked out, although it is still clearly visible.  The program was re-booked into the Assembly Hall - a concert hall near the current Orpheum Theatre.  Information is not available why this concert was hastily re-booked, but it might have been due to the renovation of the Opera not being finished in time. 


1873 Program 1873 Program 1873 Program Ole Bull Feranti Rosnati

Graziella Ridgeway


 Commencement   >>

The Greenlaw Opera House was the city auditorium of choice for school commencements from 1865 to 1880 much like Ellis Auditorium was to the schools of 1925 to 1999.  This very rare commencement program  for the Memphis City High Schools is from 1875.   It lists early Memphis educator Jennie Higbee as Principal of the Girl's High School  ... >>



The First Fire!

In 1875, the Greenlaw Opera House suffered it's first fire.  It never fully recovered from this disaster...

1st Fire - 1875  

By 1876 the Opera House had diminished to second-class status - partially because the owners had let it fall into disrepair.   Reviewers even felt the need to mention that the theatre had been "newly cleansed" and "properly heated".    In 1878 the Greenlaw became a temperance hall.  No more "girlie shows".   And by late summer of 1878, Yellow Fever struck again.  With a declining population, the character of the city changed, and the Greenlaw was abandoned during the epidemics and the after-clean-up campaigns.  By  1879 it was advertised as a storehouse and became known as "that old barn on Second Street.  The fire in 1883  might have been a blessing.  While the fire was covered in almost every newspaper in the country, the local papers mentioned it almost as an afterthought. 

1876 "cleansed"  


Managers ...  F. A. Tannehill  .  Robert McWade  .  Ben DeBar  .  John Stevens  .  T.W. Davey

F. A. Tannehill was manager of a stock company playing at the Memphis Odd Fellows Hall.  He leased the unfinished Opera House and planned to form a corporation to finance the completion of the building and move his stock company in.  That was a failure.  His later choice of developing a program in keeping with the star system also failed.  It had put the Opera in direct competition with a similar program at the New Memphis Theatre.  This, combined with high operational costs, excessive taxation, death of a house manager, and his own illness prior to his opening expanded his "sea of troubles".  His tenure ended after 6 weeks.  Ironically, he and his wife (Mrs. F. A. Tannehill) stayed on as actors with the new company.

F. A. Tannehill


Update 10-3-2019 .  Nicole Clark of NYC writes:  A link brought me to the Greenlaw Opera House (at this website) and I see you have information about my great-grandparents - Frank Adamson Tannehill and Mrs. F. A. Nellie Tannehill.  I have photos of both of them. Would you like me to email them to you?  My grandfather Frank H. Tannehill, (also listed on a program, below) and son of F.A, became a father in his 60s to my mother Frances Tannehill in 1922.  My mother was a talented and beautiful actress who passed away in 2013.

Mrs. F. A. Tannehill


Robert McWade next leased the Opera House and brought in a new stock company.  However the theatre remained under direct control of W. B. Greenlaw for the next 5 seasons.   That probably was a mistake because this is the period that the Opera became the "second theatre" for touring companies unable to lease the New Memphis Theatre.  Robert McWade continued as "acting manager" as well as one of the popular actors with the Greenlaw Stock Company.


Ben DeBar and John Stevens leased the Opera in 1872.  They completely renovated it and renamed it "The Grand Opera".  And because they delivered numerous stars in rapid succession, the Opera had it best season ever in 1872-73.  They continued to program great variety and audiences flocked to the Opera House.  DeBar and Stevens were rarely in Memphis and the theatre was actually managed by the very popular T. W. Davey.   There were big plans for the next season but a Yellow Fever epidemic changed all that.  Memphis went into an economic stagnation and so did The Opera House.  It began to be operated on a catch-as-catch-can arrangement - booking by booking, with no in-house manager.


"Colored" Gallery 1866

Opera  opens 1866 McWade - 1898 Stevens-DeBar-Davey 1872 Frank in 1883

Mrs. Tannehill 1914



Competition and Yellow Fever ...

Programming at the New Memphis Theatre was similar to that at the Greenlaw Opera House.  They were in direct competition - each faced with booking the same stars, the same dramas, and the same potential audience.  The biggest stars chose the well known New Memphis Theatre, because it had just been completely renovated and re-named.   Audiences went with the biggest stars.  The Greenlaw simply became the "second theatre" for touring companies unable to lease the New Memphis Theatre.  Yellow Fever struck again in 1873 with 2,000 deaths, 1878 with 5,000 deaths, and 1879 with 600 deaths.  Thousands evacuated the city each time and the Opera couldn't recover from the declining population and changing character of the city.


New Memphis Theatre Ad 1863 1869 Ad Ad 1887 Yellow Fever Strikes 25,000 evacuate - 1878

During the 1800's  Memphis was a swampy area and was well known as the filthiest and most foul smelling city on earth.  Open sewers contributed to the unpleasant odor.   In addition the sewer smell was enhanced by another smell due to Memphis paving the streets with "Nicholson Pavement" - which was wooden blocks impregnated with creosote.  These blocks had begun to decay and send forth a poisonous smell.  Plus the soil was reeking with the excrements of ten thousand families.  And the city had no service to carry garbage away.  It was one filthy city with a terrible smell - and the perfect breeding ground for Yellow Fever. 

Nicolson - decayed  

A major positive side effect came about after the 1879 epidemic, as Memphis leaders embarked on ambitious sanitation reform.  Strict sanitation laws were finally passed outlawing open privies.  Regular trash collection was instituted, in addition to clearing away all the garbage that had accumulated since the 1878 epidemic due to lack of funds to remove it.  The decaying wooden paving blocks were torn up and gravel mixed with limestone roads were laid.   During this "clean-up" the old Greenlaw Opera House had declined and it was abandoned.


New sewer system




Fire ...

On October 8, 1883 the Greenlaw Opera House caught fire around 8 PM.  A building across Barbaro Alley had caught fire first and the fire jumped across the alley to the Opera.  Within a few hours the building was gone.  Fire was big news during this time and when the burning building was a "temple of drama" it was even bigger news.  Virtually every newspaper in the country either had an article on the Greenlaw Opera fire, or mentioned it somewhere in their paper.  But in Memphis, the Opera House had now become known as "that old barn on Second Street" and the local papers  only gave it a casual mention.


Fire!!! NY Times Atlanta Constitution Daily Telegraph Second - Union today... Barbaro Alley-2nd today



Description of the Greenlaw Opera House  
Excerpts Below  - From Temple to Barn:  The Greenlaw Opera House in Memphis, 1860-1880, by Eugene K. Briskow

The Building:  Its two-hundred-foot frontage facing Second Street, the Greenlaw Block ... comprised two wings and a center, built of ruddy, dry-pressed brick.  Romanesque in style, the wings were divided into four floors; ground, first, second, and third.  The center, soaring to ninety-three feet above the pavement, featured sixty windows, exclusive of those on the ground floor, as well as a circular pediment ornamented with lyres and scroll work.  The South Wing contained court rooms and stores, whereas the North Wing in 1865 was converted to house the activities of the Memphis Club.  The entire ground floor consisted of shops, stores, and restaurant.


Interior organization and description:  Three halls were available for meetings, lectures, social events and theatrical productions.  The South Wing's third floor, given over to Chancery Court, provided space for various lectures during the 60s and 70s.  Combining ball room and theatre, the North Wing's third floor accommodated 300 couples at a dance, or a thousand spectators at a play, and included a gallery at the east end.  Both amateur and professional companies gave performances in the north wing, usually identified as either the Greenlaw Opera Hall, or the Memphis Club Hall.  The Third Hall, or the Greenlaw Opera House, was located in the central part of the Greenlaw Block.  Four  doors provided entrance, a door at each corner of both front and rear.  The two front doors, each eight feet wide, were heavy enough to be rigged with pulleys and counterweights, and each contained an inner green door, double-hinged to open in as well as out.  Once inside the building, the patron climbed a spacious stairway that led to a lobby, eleven feet in width, on the first floor.  Six doors gave access to the interior.



The Auditorium:  The elliptically shaped auditorium measured 92 feet long, 76 feet wide, and 50 feet high.  Cornices, each 9 feet high, projected from the walls to arch toward the center, and at a line where the cornices terminated, the flat ceiling contained a large window. Smaller windows perforated the dome-like portion of the ceiling structure.  In the center of the auditorium removeable chairs,  placed on level floor, delimited the parquette, or pit.  Between the pit and stage platform, at the west end, lay space for the orchestra.  From the rear of the pit, the floor inclined to form the dress circle that extended from one side of the state to the other.  The first (family circle) and second galleries surrounded both parquette and dress circle in the shape of an ellipse.  Since the principal portion of the galleries received its support from the roof, there were only three columns in the auditorium.  Attention had also been given to the problem of acoustics.  Curves were usually employed in place of angles.  The cornices, as well as the ceilings below the galleries were curved, and the material separating the auditorium from the lobbies was of wood. 


The First Renovation:  Originally designed for concerts and lectures, the Opera House stage, though 54 feet wide, measured only 10 feet deep - quite sufficient for singers and speakers but severely limited for actors in theatrical productions.  As a result, when the Opera House was completed in 1866, immediate renovations were required.  Greenlaw extended the stage depth, built two dressing rooms at each side of the stage, and furnished upholstered seats in the parquette, dress circle, and first gallery.  The forestage was also extended and supplied with scenery.  A chandelier with hundreds of gas jets, mounted from the center dome, illuminated both stage and auditorium, while a steam heating system was installed to keep the house warm in winter and cool in summer.  With seating capacity at 2,500, the Opera House was divided as follows:  parquette and dress circle - 1000, family circle - 700, second gallery - 800, Aisle space was advertised as "wide, plenty of room to pass in front of those who are seated.

The Second Renovation:  The second major improvement occurred in 1872 when Ben DeBar and Jon Stevens leased the Opera House, renamed it the GRAND OPERA HOUSE, and thoroughly renovated the interior.  The stage was raised a foot higher and extended to 40 feet in depth.  A new proscenium arch cut the opening to 38 feet in width and framed the new drop curtain designed by Angelo Wiesner.  Additional backstage space in depth and width enabled the management to stage spectacular productions, replete with new scenery, properties, and furniture.  Alterations in the auditorium included an enlarged orchestra, new chandeliers and gas brackets, recovered chairs, remodeled galleries, and frescoed walls.  Seating capacity was reduced to 2,200 or to an $1,800 house.

Photo or Drawing of the

Greenlaw Opera House


We know it's "out there"...




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