Hidden History: Osage City opera house operator finds fame for others

An old postcard depicts the Grand Opera House at Osage City; from collections of Osage County Historical Society.

By Wendi Bevitt

At one time, Osage City had two opera houses. The Howe House opened in 1879, changing its name to the Osage City Opera House in 1883. Its rival, the Grand Opera House, opened within five years. Each could hold around 700 attendees.

These establishments brought in entertainment like prima donna sopranos, witty speakers, bands, lectures on the newest scientific discoveries like x-rays, and were the sites of community gatherings.

The Osage City Opera House brought in the big names, but also was a springboard for talent, not of a performer, but of a promoter – Melville “Mel” Raymond.

Raymond Melville

Mel Raymond’s parents, Melville and Mary Raymond, moved their family from Eureka, Kan., to Burlingame in the mid-1880s. Mr. Raymond established himself as a grocer, supplying various fruits, baking supplies, cigars, tobacco, stationary and confections to the community. He held a high standard for his goods, and his candy stock alone had, according to the Burlingame Enterprise, “never been equaled by variety or uniqueness It is absolutely pure, he sells no other kinds.” Mrs. Raymond, on the other hand, supported the community by holding a “little folks sewing class” at her home two times per week.

Mel worked as a clerk in his father’s store. The younger Melville, however, was called to a life in the entertainment business at a young age. Mel started by creating his own comedy troop with friend Fred Schenck, called the Schenck and Raymond Comedy Company. Their signature piece was called “Fun on a Steamboat” where Mel pushed the envelope by performing in blackface. The group performed the act at area opera houses, touring as far as Mel’s former home, Eureka.

After that last stop, he and co-star Mary “Pet” Lamb surprised everyone back in Osage County by getting married at the Gold Dust Hotel in nearby Fredonia, Kan.

However, with “the call of the amusement world loud in his ear,” he left to join Sells Brothers’ circus a few short months later, returning to Burlingame only after the group returned to winter quarters.

Afterwards Mel started working in opera house venues, managing the Osage City Opera House and eight others around 1891. He returned to circus life as a press and contracting agent, notably for the Ringling Brothers, but also for other minor companies. He gained the reputation for being spectacular in his methods of promotion.

He then took a position by 1900 with one of the biggest lithographing companies around and was sent east to look after their vast business, particularly the theatrical branch. This involved acting as custodian of money for actors, actresses and business managers. “Brother Mel” was their financial guardian for four months of the year, giving an allowance from $6 to $25 per week according to the amount in his care and the number of weeks it was to last.

During this time, an African American vaudeville actor whom Mel is credited with discovering, Bert Williams, was making $125 per week. A few years later, Bert Williams went on to act in the Zigfield Follies and was paid more than $1,000 weekly.

Raymond helped bring Buster Brown to life in a Broadway musical; actors are shown in this photo in the Evening Telegraph, New York, New York, Jan. 27, 1905.

Mel’s employment evolved into his promotion of traveling attractions and then to Broadway theatrical productions in New York City. One of his first projects, The Man from China, showed in 1904 at the Majestic Theater. Other than being historically groundbreaking by including the first fashion show, the show itself was an utter flop.

The next year held wild success as Mel was granted exclusive rights to bring the cartoon characters, Buster Brown and his dog Tige to life in a Broadway musical. He captured the attention of audiences first in New York City, and then arranged for several theatrical companies to take the show to smaller venues throughout middle America until 1906. This idea, while extremely popular, was not cost effective and ended up contributing to mounting financial problems for the young producer.

Mel did not let these little money issues get in his way. He rode out the ups and downs and went on to discover major talent of the day: Nat Wills, the greatest tramp comic; William and Dustin Farnum who went on to star in silent films; and African American duos Bob Cole and J. Rosamund Johnson and Bert Williams and George Walker.

Mel’s shows always took on a grand nature and challenged norms. Exemplifying this was Abyssinia, Mel’s Broadway show featuring Williams and Walker. This show gave the African American duo an opportunity to break from the sterotypical African American roles.

The star, George Walker, is quoted by the Chicago Tribune as saying, “It’s all rot, this slapstick bandanna handkerchief bladder in the face act, with which negro acting is associated. It ought to die out and we are trying to kill it.” And Mel Raymond gave them the opportunity to try. This production, done in Mel’s grand manner, also featured live camels on stage.

In later years, Mel returned to his roots of promoting entertainment in the Midwest. His parents resided in Burlingame until about 1910, when they moved to Texas. The city of Burlingame followed him throughout his career and always claimed him as their hometown boy.

Melville Raymond photo courtesy of the Evening Star, Independence, Kan.


wendibevitt2016bWendi Bevitt is owner of Buried Past Consulting LLC. She has lived in Osage County for 18 years and her research interests include Osage County Civil War veterans and Osage County history.


One Response to Hidden History: Osage City opera house operator finds fame for others

  1. ABWB says:

    This a very interesting "read"!

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