‘The Big O’ fire, 1908

The Olympic theater – better known as “the Big O” – advertised “strictly refined vaudeville.” But newspaper reporters and state regulators suspected patrons got a bit more for their 15 cents.

So the Illinois State Journal saw some justice in the March 18, 1908, fire that destroyed the Big O.

1905 newspaper ad for the Olympic Theater, 409-11 E. Jefferson St. (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

“McCann Brothers, who occupied the first two floors with a combination saloon, billiard and pool hall, vaudeville theater and lodging house, are put out of business,” the Journal said the next day. “What the reformers of Springfield failed to do after long and continued effort the fire fiend accomplished in a few short hours.”

The Big O, located in the rear of the McCann brothers’ saloon at 409-11 E. Jefferson Street, was one of Springfield’s best-known vaudeville/burlesque houses. Edward (1869-1935) and Cornelius J. McCann (1875-1915) co-owned the saloon, and “Corney” managed the theater. The Journal announced the theater’s opening in February 1905.

J.R. Massie has taken charge of the orchestra. Evening performances will be given nightly and the usual matinees. Smoking is permitted, and to the lower floor ladies are not admitted. The theater occupies the part of the building in which Allen’s bowling alleys were. It has a capacity for seating 700.

On the bill this week are the famous Bowery Newsboys quartet; George Austin, wire walker; Beeson & Atherton, character change act; Antrim & Peters, knockabout comedians; (and) Frankie Campbell, contralto.

The Olympic’s opening show, typically for the period, also included two blackface comedians and a minstrel-style singer.

Whatever the merits of the performers, the Big O apparently offered a different style of entertainment behind the footlights. In 1907, two young Chicago women claimed they had been lured to the Springfield theater by the promise of jobs as chorus girls. When they arrived, however, they said, Corney McCann told them they would have to “hustle for drinks.”

Chicago authorities opened an investigation into the theatrical manager, William F. Henderson, who sent the women, Evelyn Krause, 19, and Ida Parker, 18, to Springfield. That, in turn, led to charges also against McCann.

Parker and Krause in Illinois State Register front-page layout, 1908 (SJ-R)

The women’s landlady, Isabella Stratton, lived next door to the Big O. She testified in the agent’s case that Krause and Parker went to the theater about 7:30 the evening they arrived in town. They returned about an hour later, Stratton said.

“They were crying and said that they had been told to ‘hustle for drinks’ and that they did not want to do it,” Stratton said. She gave the women money for their train tickets back to Chicago.

The story made clear that Stratton wasn’t a fan of the Big O under any circumstances.

She declared that from her front porch she could see through a window into the theatre and see what was there. “I have seen girls and boys only 18 or 19 years old in there at 8 o’clock in the morning drinking and carousing in the worst possible manner,” said she.

McCann supposedly paid the Chicago manager $10 for every woman he recruited to work at the theater. “It is the worst case of white slavery I have ever heard of,” Cook County assistant state’s attorney Clifford Roe said.

The Journal story concluded with one other tantalizing but unsubstantiated paragraph about the theater.

One detective tells a rather sensational story of the character of the “Big O” in Springfield, where he saw young girls soliciting drinks among mere lads, whose mothers would be shocked if they knew of their habits in such places.

Henderson and McCann were indicted for “conspiracy to entice girls into a resort.” Both were eventually found not guilty, although Henderson lost his agent’s license.

It isn’t actually clear that the Big O hosted more vice than Springfield’s many other saloons/billiard parlors/burlesque theaters at the time. Newspaper stories report only a couple of fistfights and minor disputes during the three years the theater operated.

But newspaper reporters nonetheless remained skeptical of the forms of entertainment available at the Big O. That became obvious in the papers’ coverage of the fire that destroyed the theater. The Illinois State Register’s kitchen-sink lead sentence is an example.

Flames originating shortly after 6 o’clock last night, possibly from spontaneous combustion, possibly from a stove, or possibly from a bolt of fire from Heaven, completely gutted and destroyed the “Big O” theatre, with all its bar-room, billiard hall, vaudeville and bed-room investiture, sent a dozen hand-painted “actresses” in panic-stricken flight into the street, threatened a general conflagration of contiguous property, and caused a total loss of $40,000 before (being) subdued after the firemen fought desperately for three hours.

The blaze apparently started on the building’s third floor, where furniture belonging to the building’s owner, Herbert Griswold, was stored. Authorities suspected the cause was an arsonist with a grudge against Griswold, since another Griswold property, a warehouse in the 600 block of East Washington Street, also caught fire the same night. No one was ever charged in connection with the fires.

Rain helped firefighters quell the blaze before it spread to nearby buildings. Meanwhile, chivalrous bystanders saved the belongings of the theater’s hostesses, many of whom lived upstairs, the Register said.

The “Big O girls” were in a state of terror when it was made known to them that the place was on fire. They were unable to control themselves longer and pleaded and implored with men in the saloon of the Big O to save their trunks and clothes which were in the rooms on the second floor. As an additional trunk or armload of feminine wearing apparel was brought safely out of the rooms, the one who brought it was “just the dearest man in all the world.”

Every piece of property owned by the girls which was stored in the theatre was gotten out in safety, but the only piece of property which was owned by the theatre which was saved was the moving picture machine.

Although the theater was destroyed, the building at 409-11 E. Jefferson apparently was repairable. The McCann brothers were soon back in the entertainment business at the sane address – this time, the establishment was called the Palms, a combination bar, billiard room and café featuring music by reputable local musicians. Its ads called the Palms “the one bright spot in town.”

Footnote: The Olympic has one other claim to entertainment fame: it apparently inspired the career of actor/singer/dancer Bobby Watson, a Springfield native who allegedly got his first exposure to the stage selling peanuts during shows at the Big O.

Watson (birth name Robert Keucher) went on to perform in vaudeville, on Broadway and in character roles in many Hollywood movies, including several in which he portrayed Adolf Hitler. Read more about him here.

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