Arcadia Opera House lures hunters of ghosts, antique rarities

Published Sept. 6, 2012

Arcadia – The rambling Arcadia Opera House looks like it could hide a few ghosts.

"I've never seen one myself, but there have been quite a few sightings," says proprietor James Crosby, who has owned the 1906 building for two years. Indeed, a haunt-hunting team from Bravo Television stalked spirits there and a program is scheduled to air this fall, Crosby said.

Museum pieces from the turn-of-the-century theater add a nostalgic touch – or an eerie one, if the observer is particularly sensitive.

But the Opera House's big draw is its huge selection of antiques spread over 14 rooms in the two-story building's 9,000 square feet. Furniture from New England, clothing from decades back, tools from your grandfather's box and glassware from all over are among the vintage items. There's a 1923 Victrola and an RCA Victor Consolette from a later era – and there is an extensive vinyl album collection.

Madame Zoltar, a version of the animated Gypsy fortune teller once found in arcades, adds a proper touch to what Crosby calls the Bizarre Bazaar, which offers literally hundreds of items for sale.

For a quarter, customers can turn on the band organ, an old-school county-fair type of instrument that plays automatically and is designed to sound like a multi-piece band. A sign on it says: "Infamous 'horn machine' has driven thousands crazy since 1918. Now it's your turn.'"

Crosby said he takes some items on consignment and he also rents space to vendors. The charge is generally $100 to $200 for a room, depending on its size, plus 10 percent of the vendor's take.

The Opera House, built the year after a 1905 fire destroyed most of Arcadia's downtown, anchors the city's historic district. About 3,400 acres containing 293 historic buildings comprise the neighborhood, which was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

Several blocks of antique stores make it a picker's paradise. The dealers association offers an "antique fair" on the fourth Saturday of each month; it sometimes draws more than 100 independent dealers.

Two bed-and-breakfast sites offer neighborhood accommodations and there are several restaurants, including the 83-year-old Wheeler's Café with its pie specialties. (The author's favorite was the butterscotch peanut butter.)

Arcadia itself is a trove of history. It was a focal point of the 19th century Florida cattle industry and, at one time, had a reputation as a wild and wide-open cow town. Range wars erupted and sometimes spilled across the town's dusty streets. One historian wrote that as many as 50 fights a day took place; one is recalled as causing the deaths of four men.

The Opera House probably did not see any of the Old West-style violence. But it became a magnet after the 1905 Thanksgiving Day fire that started in a livery stable. Only two buildings survived.

Soon afterward, John J. Heard built the Opera House, establishing the second-floor theater over the Florida Loan and Trust Company. It was used for both silent movies and "talkies," political events, school graduations, dances and a USO operation during World War II. The stage and balcony are preserved, along with theater bills and paraphernalia. None of the museum pieces is for sale.

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Among other items, a circuit board for the original stage lighting remains. A klieg light dating from the early 1900s was used to provide the light needed to expose early film. The original wooden cylinder used to crank up the stage curtain still is present.

Not all the museum items are related to the theater or old movies. A metal contraption resembling a bomb is labeled as "the first guided missile." The thing has a saddle and handlebars mounted on it, and is addressed to "the Kaiser," a reference to the German leader during World War I.

Perhaps the most unusual piece is a fancy surrey sitting center stage. It's a 1902 Deere and Webber – and you can almost see the shade of John J. Heard sitting atop it.

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