Text and photos submitted by Terry L. Ommen
Early Visalians loved to be entertained. Whether it was children singing and dancing for their parents at a school program, adults donning costumes for a fancy ball or street performers prying a grin from a passerby, Visalia has always been a welcoming place for those willing to make other people smile.
Generally, the town had plenty of talent from which to draw, but it wasn’t just local entertainers who wowed hometown audiences. Even nationally known circuit-riding performers made stops. For example, the “Hoosier Poet,” James Whitcomb Riley, recited his work to the delight of Visalia crowds, and Bill Nye kept a huge Visalia crowd in stitches with his humor. Even the Calhoun Opera Company thrilled a crowd when it brought the romantic opera Amorosa to town.
Performers generally had several venues to choose from when they came to Visalia, but most were small and not suitable for large productions or crowds. However, there was one playhouse that clearly was the place of choice for the most elaborate productions — Theatre Visalia. It was an imposing brick structure that stood on the northeast corner of Court Street and Acequia Avenue.
The structure, built in 1889 as Armory Hall, was to be used by the local National Guard, but it was also designed to be an entertainment center.
Management of the building tried to keep up with the changing needs of more sophisticated acts and audiences, so upgrades were periodically made. Electric lighting replaced gas lamps, more fire prevention devices were added, and the building heating system was improved. With these changes and others over the years, the building took on different names such as the Unique Theater and the Visalia Opera House.
In December 1914, the building showcased its most significant remodel. It became Theatre Visalia, boasting 795 seats and an enlarged stage. It accommodated both silent movies and vaudeville acts, and it was large enough to support the needs of any production company. Many said the updated theater marked “a new social epoch in the city’s history.”
Visalians liked variety in their entertain-ment, including acts that involved animals. Probably the most popular animals were those that came with circuses. The draw of a tiger, hyena or lion riding inside a brightly painted cage on a wagon as it paraded down Main Street was hard to beat. Then, of course, there were the elephants. These giants were impressive as they walked next to the wagons, just a few feet from those lining the parade route. But animal acts also came with variety shows and as solo acts. Theatre Visalia was just the place for them to perform.
On May 13, 1917, the Visalia Morning Delta announced that “Captain — the Educated Horse” was coming to Theatre Visalia. The special horse was known to many in town. The “horse with the human brain” had an amazing reputation with an impressive pedigree. He was born in 1905 in Oregon from excellent racing stock. By 1907, the 2-year-old was already running a 2-minute, 16-second mile. But when Captain W. A. Sigsbee, a lifelong horse trainer, bought the young steed in 1908, he saw more than just a fast horse.
He named him Captain after his own honorary title. He took the animal to Chicago, where he really discovered the horse’s amazing intellectual talent. For five years, Sigsbee patiently worked with Captain on a variety of skills, including arithmetic — subtraction, addition, division and multiplication — all counted with his hooves. Making exact change for a dollar bill was also mastered with the correct coins picked up with his mouth. Various physical maneuvers were learned, including sitting and smiling, and stretching all four legs out like a “hobby horse.” Captain could differentiate about 15 colors and, when asked, would pick the correct colored cloth each time. To add to the level of difficulty, many of the horse’s talents were demonstrated while the animal was blindfolded.
Sigsbee and Captain performed for the first time at a convention in Chicago in 1913, but their career really got a boost at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Captain, while performing at the “Joy Zone” (the midway for amusements at the Expo), teamed up with Madam Ellis, a crowd-pleasing mind reader, who also had a popular show there. The two wowed audiences and were probably the best-attended amusement at the zone.
After the Expo, Captain and Madam Ellis began traveling the entertainment circuit together as the Sigsbee-Ellis Show, although each performed separately.
So with much fanfare, Captain and Madam Ellis arrived in Visalia. They were scheduled for a week of entertainment beginning on May 16, 1917. Shows were scheduled for evening performances and afternoon matinees with seat prices set at 10 and 15 cents.
The two vaudeville acts were well-received and Captain especially did not disappoint. On May 18, the Visalia Morning Delta reported: “A very pleasing vaudeville bill was offered at Theatre Visalia last night of which Captain was easily the star.
He did stunts that the educated horse has not heretofore done and he made everyone enjoy his act to the utmost.”
Madam Ellis wasn’t ignored by the press either. The telepathist, with her amazing mindreading act, was called delightful and amazing. “Madam Ellis is without a doubt the greatest adept in her line that has ever existed in this or any other age. Her work … borders on the supernatural,” reported the Visalia Daily Times.
But Captain probably captured the highlight for the week when he performed a special matinee on May 19. The show was arranged especially for children, and each child was given the opportunity to meet Captain on stage after his performance. Sigsbee jokingly encouraged the children to “bring your arithmetic lessons … and let Captain figure them out for you.”
Captain and Madam Ellis spent a full week in town entertaining probably hundreds, although the exact count is unknown. Both were a big hit, and Theatre Visalia proved to be a perfect venue.
Over the years, the theater hosted many more acts. It was eventually vacated and, in 1936, the decision was made to raze the old playhouse.