In 1883 Fort Worth built a grand opera house.
By 1900 the opera house had been renamed “Greenwall’s Opera House.” (Photo from Greater Fort Worth, 1907.)
The Spanish-American War of 1898 had inspired theatrical productions from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to Broadway to traveling repertory companies. On September 12, 1900 the Fort Worth Register reminded readers that the Aubrey stock company that night would present at the opera house a melodrama, The Red, White and Blue, about U.S. Marines battling Cubans on the island after a Cuban killed an American plantation owner.
Seven blocks from the opera house, on West Weatherford Street, was the grocery store of Wade Tanner. Wade’s brother Percy worked in the store and lived on Mills Street with Wade’s family. (Mills Street—also called “Mill Street”—is located just south of the old Leonard’s subway parking lot and may have been so-named because it ended at the river near where Julian Feild operated a mill in the nineteenth century.)
After work on that night of September 12, 1900 Percy Tanner left his brother’s home and walked to the business district. There he found himself standing at the intersection of Rusk and 3rd streets, just outside the opera house entrance, but for Percy Tanner it was also the intersection of Choice and Chance. Like all of us, he had an infinite number of choices at any given time. He could have chosen to, for example, walk across 3rd Street to the Natatorium and taken a chance on suffering leg cramps and drowning in the Nat’s swimming pool. He could have chosen to proceed south on Rusk into Hell’s Half Acre and taken a chance on being stabbed in a barroom brawl. He could have chosen to walk west to Main Street and taken a chance on being hit by a streetcar.
But no, Percy Tanner chose to walk into the opera house to see the play The Red, White and Blue. Once inside the opera house he made his way up the stairs to the balcony, took his seat, and watched the stage as the curtain rose.
[Enter CHANCE, stage left.]
In its September 13 edition the Register reported that during the previous night’s performance of The Red, White and Blue a battery-activated wooden cannon on stage had exploded prematurely during the last act just before the curtain rang down. Chunks of the shattered cannon flew into the auditorium, slightly injuring some patrons. Another patron was hit by an eight-pound jagged fragment and severely injured. The patron was rushed to St. Joseph’s Infirmary, where he died.
Percy Tanner was twenty-eight years old.
The legal system acted quickly. On September 16 the Register reported that the stock company’s manager and property man were indicted for committing negligent homicide by unlawfully discharging a cannon in the city limits.
On September 20 the Register reported on the trial of the property man, who described how the accident occurred. He had loaded the cannon with not more than one and one-half tablespoons of gunpowder, purchased at the sporting goods store of A. J. Anderson.
The Dallas Morning News reported on September 21 that the property man had been acquitted. The trial of the stock company manager was held over to the next term of the court. He apparently never stood trial for negligent homicide.
But the family of Percy Tanner filed a civil suit against the opera house and against the stock company. On April 2, 1901 the Tanners were awarded damages of $6,000 ($165,000 today) from the stock company. Clip is from the April 3 Register.
Young Percy Tanner, who had stood at the intersection of Choice and Chance and had taken a seat in the balcony of the opera house that night wanting only to be entertained, is buried in Oakwood Cemetery.