Ben Ali Theater

In 1912, James Ben Ali Haggin formed the Ben Ali Theater Company[1] to build a new opera house or theater on East Main Street, opposite the Phoenix Hotel.  The theater was named the Ben Ali Theater, after Haggin’s son.  The property was owned by Haggin and the Berryman Realty Company.  Haggin was the primary stockholder of the Berryman Realty Company.  Haggin capitalized the company at $100,000, $50,000 in common stock and $50,000 in preferred stock.  In addition, he purchased $100,000 in bonds.

In May 1912, the theater plans were finalized and the next month bids were let.  The theater was designed by W. H. McElfatrich, architect of New York City.

The theater was built on Short Street, on a lot running 110 feet along Short Street and 132 feet back towards Main Street.  The theater was four stories, including a basement, main auditorium, balcony and gallery.  The construction was of stone, brick and structural steel.  The basement contained the heating, lighting and ventilating plants.  The stage was 40 feet wide and 72 feet long.  The stage was equipped with an asbestos curtain, to prevent the spread of a fire.  At the rear of the stage were 15 dressing rooms and lavatories.  Several offices were located on the upper floors.

Entrance and lobby of Ben Ali Theater   <Battaile Collection, Lexington Public Library>

Stage at Ben Ali Theater, with movie screen   <Battaile Collection, Lexington Public Library>

The main entrance was built off Main Street, where the old Heintz Jewelry Store was located.  The theater was reached through an arcade 132 feet long and 25 feet wide.  The corridor was finished with marble and scagliola.  Along the right side of the arcade was a number of plate glass stalls, 18 feet wide, housing the box office and dairy showroom.

The foyer was located at the end of the corridor, decorated with potted palm plants (giving a tropical theme to the foyer).  Off the foyer, the ladies’ parlor and restrooms on the right and the men’s lounging and smoking room on the left.

The theater’s seating capacity was 1,507 - main auditorium 616, balcony 379, gallery 416 and boxes 96.  Twelve private boxes were located on each side, four corresponding to each floor.  The theater was decorated in peacock blue carpets, with gold trim.  The walls were finished in ornamental plaster, with mosaic title and marble wainscoting.

A side entrance was located on Limestone Street (where the old Majestic Bowling Allen was located) and the stage and gallery entrances on Short Street, opposite the county jail.  The theater cost $120,000.[i]

On September 23, 1913, the grand premier of the Ben Ali featured a vaudeville act of “The Passing of 1912,” with Trixie Friganza and Dixie Quinan.  The audience was dressed in black tie and exquisite gowns.  The Haggin’s box was the first box on the right and Berryman in the second box.  After the performance, the guests were entertained at a late dinner at the Phoenix Hotel.[ii]

The theater was advertised as the “Finest Theater in the South.”  The theater was torn down in 1965, replaced by a parking lot.

 

[1] An interesting story of why Haggin built the Ben Ali Theater, indicates that his wife returned early from a trip and discovered that their box at the Opera House had been resold.  Her husband built the theater to make sure their box would not be resold.  However, there is no account of this in the newspapers of the day.

 

[i] Lexington Leader, January 9, 1912, page 1, column 3 and May 26, 1912, section1, page 1, columns 4-5.

[ii] Lexington Leader, September 24, 1913, page 1, column 7 and page 5, columns 3-5 and page 10, column 1.

 

References: 
William M. Ambrose, Magnificent Elmendorf, Limestone Press, Lexington, 2012.
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