Jobe’s Opera House Was City’s First Entertainment Mecca

In 1884, there could be no mistake as to the identity of the business on the second floor at the southwest corner of Main and Spring streets.

“Jobe’s Opera House” appeared in large letters across the upper north side of the edifice, denoting Johnson City’s first public entertainment venue. Ike T. Jobe built and managed the upstairs establishment; M.E. Gump was assistant manager, being the owner of Gump Clothing Store located below it.

The successful enterprise was proclaimed by a travel agent of McElreth’s Dramatic Troop to be the “largest and best hall between Lynchburg, Virginia and Knoxville, Tennessee.” A flyer from 1888 proclaimed: “full sets scenery,” “first-class show town,” “play companies only on shares,” with an added suggestion for patrons to “Stop at Piedmont House.”

The enterprise offered cultural refinement from a variety of choices – operas, plays, lectures, humorists and music productions. Entrance to the theatre was gained by climbing doublewide stairs through two doors into the massive 900-seat auditorium. The lecture hall’s use included sporting activities and even once served as a courtroom for chancery court sessions. In its formative years, the facility was used by such notables as Johnson City’s Bob Taylor, delivering lectures as part of his highly popular “The Fiddle & the Bow” series.

According to the late Dorothy Hamill, the opera house occasionally opened its doors for high school graduations. Graduating seniors, dressed in long white frocks or black suits, marched from the Hill on Roan Street to the auditorium where they received their long awaited diplomas.

Over time, numerous first-rate productions graced the opera stage, as often reported by The Comet: “Jesse James,” 1885, a production denoting the life of the infamous outlaw, “complete in every detail.”

“Olde Folkes Concerte,” 1906,” by Mrs. L.W. McCown, with humorous dialog – “ye young men and maidens will be suffered to sit together in ye congregations, but worldie young men and women are desired not to hold conversations to ye distraction of others while ye tunes are being sung. … All ye congregation who have goode lungs may stand and singe ye last songs.”

Bertram & Willard’s Realistic American Comedy Drama, “The Midnight Fire,” 1900, an ironic title for a fundraiser aimed at helping the Johnson City Fire Department acquire new uniforms. …

Mary Prescott in “Ingomar” (1887), Louise Balfe in “Dogmar” and The Meyer Thorne Company’s presentations of “A Woman’s Divotions,” “Stricken Blind” and “Rip Van Winkle,” …

The Haworth’s Specialty Comedy Company; Bristol Colored Jubilee Company; Ralph Bingham, boy orator, humorist, and violinist; and Professor A.H. Merrill of Vanderbilt University.

The latter’s appearance was sponsored by the Longfellow Literary Circle and S.B. McElreth, a Johnson City comedian. This society was organized at the residence of Sallie Faw. Cargilles frequently sponsored such events, declaring to be “the cheapest store in existence” and claiming to “outsell every other concern in the trade.” Around the turn of the century, the opera management pioneered some brief action packed silent motion pictures using a new invention – a hand-operated projectoscope.

The new medium of motion pictures was looming on the horizon and, by about 1907, would bring to an abrupt halt the once impressive Jobe’s Opera House.