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Vogt Theater: Gone ... but not forgotten

Karl Vercouteren has been researching the “forgotten” history of the Vogt Opera House, searching through early issues of The Dalles Chronicle, pictured behind him in the “morgue” at the newspaper.

Karl Vercouteren has been researching the “forgotten” history of the Vogt Opera House, searching through early issues of The Dalles Chronicle, pictured behind him in the “morgue” at the newspaper. Photo by Mark Gibson.

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An early photograph by Arthur Seufert, above, shows the corner of Second and Washington, looking west, taken in 1900. The Vogt house is on the right.

CORRECTION: In the print and www.thedalleschronicleonline.com version of this story, Karl Vercouteren's name was incorrectly spelled. It has been corrected below. We regret the error.

When Karl Vercouteren began researching the history of the “forgotten” opera house in The Dalles, he became so enthralled by the project that he published more than 200 pages of his findings.

“It became much bigger than what I thought when I started out,” he said. “There were rabbit trails to follow and sometimes they didn’t lead anywhere and at other times, they opened up whole new areas of research.”

As a retired pastor of the United Church of Christ Congregational, Vercouteren was accustomed to studying different aspects of a chosen subject.

He used those skills to methodically piece together the puzzle of what had happened with the Vogt Opera House, which served as a community hub in the 1890s.

During the latter months of 2016 and into the early part of 2017, Vercouteren was a regular visitor to the “morgue” at the Chronicle, where he went through bound editions of newspapers to find stories about the Vogt that once dominated the Third Street block between Washington and Federal.

Vercouteren also pored over records from the Discovery Center, Wasco County Pioneer Association, Oregon Historical Society and The Dalles-Wasco County Public Library. He perused insurance maps and materials collected by community members.

As he compared data, Vercouteren found that many reports were misleading, incomplete or just plain erroneous and determined that “this bit of our history needed rescue.”

“I don’t know exactly how many hours I spent in research, it was on again and off again,” he said of those months.

His interest in the opera house, also known as The Vogt Grand Theater, began with the discovery of music that once graced the stage when groups of singers and actors came to town.

Although the Morin Printing building on Washington Street was described on a plaque outside as the town’s opera house, Vercouteren found that there had been an earlier theater on Second Street, which had seated 300 and had standing room only for a crowd of 500.

“It was the heyday of the traveling theater companies, they came out of Chicago, New York and San Francisco and they scheduled appearances all over the place. They brought scenery and props, so it was quite a production,” he said.

The Vogt at the corner of Federal and Third streets was built after the Second Street opera house burned.

The new theater was designed in Italianate style by Maximilian Vogt and the curtain went up for the first dramatic production in 1890.

The cost for entrance to the Vogt, which was built in 1890, was 75 cents to $1 per individual, which might have been expensive at the time, said Vercouteren.

The theater was a happening place, with lectures and concerts, vaudeville acts, minstrel shows, visiting politicians and fraternal lodge gatherings.

“It really was the entertainment for the town,” he said.

The Vogt also doubled as a National Guard training center, and warriors congregated there once a month.

Vercourteren believed the description “opera house” and “theater” were used interchangeably to describe the Vogt to meet the mores of the times. He said in 19th century America, opera was viewed as a more respectable art form than theater.

“Just the sheer number of things that went on in that building was amazing – some weeks there was something every night,” he said.

Maximilian Vogt had immigrated to the United States from the city of Arnsberg in the Ruhr Valley of the Prussian Empire. He was an officer in the Prussian Army and came to America in 1862 with plans to enlist in the Union Army. However, he decided that he had not been in the country long enough to decide whether he wanted to fight for the north or south.

After stopping in Philadelphia for a few months, Maximilian headed to The Dalles.

Vercouteren could not find any statement about what brought Vogt to the Gorge, but believed it might have been friends from Germany who had already settled here. He also could not find any photos of Maximilian, who avoided publicity.

After working at several businesses downtown, Maximilian began investing in commercial properties and opened a notions store on First Street between Court and Washington in partnership with his sister, Philippine.

Although Maximilian, by trade a carpenter, and his sister invested heavily in First Street properties, the area was blighted by fires that destroyed wooden structures. Business also suffered from the railroad running down the middle of the street.

According to information compiled by Vercouteren, the final blow for Maximillian came when the railroad raised the level of First Street and old storefronts became basements. New enterprises were located along Second Street, which became the commercial hub.

In the 1880s, Maximillian retired from the mercantile business and became the biggest landlord in The Dalles.

He purchased the first property along Washington Street that would become part of the Vogt block. He added property at Third and Washington in 1884 and, four years later, acquired ownership of the south half of the block between Washington and Federal streets.

The Vogt, southwest corner of Federal and Second streets, originally had three stories. There were stores on the ground floor and a combination of apartments, offices and even a lodge hall upstairs. The Optimist, then a local newspaper, was a tenant of Vogt’s.

In 1877, Maximilian had helped his younger brother Franz (or Frank) and family come to America. They also settled in The Dalles and Frank entered the commercial life of the town.

German-American culture thrived in the Dalles in the days before World War I; there were breweries, restaurants and even the “Gesant Verein,” a singing society that formed in 1889. The Vogt family was an active part of that community.

Maximilian lived in an apartment on the second floor of the Chapman Block, where the parking lot to the former J.C. Penney store is now.

A devastating fire in 1991 that swept through the downtown blocks on a strong east wind brought Vogt $250,000 in losses. The Vogt block was destroyed, as were the two buildings facing Washington Street. Only partial walls of the opera house were left standing.

The Dalles lost not only its major theater, but an armory that had dated back to the Revolutionary War. The equipment and uniform of the regiment’s band were also lost, as was the life of a promising officer who suffered severe burns when he tried to rescue an old violin.

The flood of 1894 caused further damage to the town and discouraged Vogt, who borrowed $50,000 from friends in Germany to rebuild the opera house.

A newspaper article from The Dalles Daily Chronicle in 1895 praised Vogt for the new structure, which had a 30-foot by 60-foot stage that could accommodate a theater group of any size, and seating capacity for a large audience, among other amenities.

“The Dalles can boast of the finest opera house in Eastern Oregon and no better name could be found than the Vogt Grand,” wrote a Chronicle reporter.

However, there were critics of the new structure – Judge Fred Wilson did not think the replacement measured up to the earlier opera house. Pianist George Valuse called it a “barn-like place.”

Poor acoustics in the hall seemed to be the only real problem and it was resolve with yard-wide strips of bunting installed at intervals of four feet over the entire ceiling and large screens at the back of the room. Later the theater would be arched to eliminate square corners that could absorb sound.

Other changes were made to the building so it would be warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. Eventually a balcony was added.

Although the original 1890 opening had been a grand affair, the reopening of the rebuilt opera house in June of 1896 was low-key.

The curtain went down on the Vogt at the end of 1916 due to increased competition from motion picture houses and a lack of touring companies coming to rural locations.

In 1917, the Chronicle published a story about the Vogt being renovated by a car dealer as a storage center for automobiles and supplies.

After 1935, the structure now occupied by the Chronicle was built on the lot that once housed the opera house, and then several businesses.

“All that’s left of the opera house is a memory,” stated Vercouteren in his publication titled “Now Playing at the Vogt: The Dalles’ Forgotten Opera House.”

Vercouteren presented his findings to the Original Wasco County Courthouse members earlier this year. He made 20 copies of his “scrap book” and has given them to to places that archive records, such as the Chronicle, the Discovery Center and the library.

He is doing a second printing and taking orders at $25 per copy.

“It was just fun sinking my teeth into this particular project,” he said.

Vercouteren is available to share his information with any interested group. He can be reached for more information at kjverc@gmail.com.

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