Gustav V. Kramer was born in Fulda, Germany on June 13, 1835, and immigrated to America at the age of 18. He lived in the German settlement near Cincinnati earning and saving money while he learned American ways. Having been taught the trade of a cooper, or barrel maker as a youth, "Gus" moved to Elwood in 1862 after hearing of the vast hardwood available for barrel and cask making. He bought a large tract of land, that now makes up a good section of Elwood, and first opened a Stave and Barrel factory, then a lumber yard, and then an excelsior factory, for the packing of goods. In addition to his lumber businesses, "Gus" next ventured into the Ice Business, opening three ice houses and owning the ponds that the ice was cut from.
After accumulating some wealth, he began to invest in real estate, which grew rapidly in value as the little town boomed. He built and owned many businesses over the years, and was a major stock holder in several others. He was without a doubt the greatest builder the city of Elwood will ever see. In 1907, one year prior to his death, Gus Kramer divided his estate amongst seven surviving children. It was by years of wise and careful business decisions that his estate consisted of 83 major properties and an unknown amount of money. Even though he was one of Elwood's wealthiest citizens, he was always known as a very humble, kind, and generous man, giving much to the benefit of the city of Elwood and to St. Joseph's Catholic Church. Without his great generosity, the current church of St. Joseph's could have never been built.
Coming from a background of culture in Germany, Gustav Kramer gave Elwood it's first Opera House in 1887 when he built the Opera House Block at the corner of So. A and Anderson Streets. The building consisted of five business rooms at street level that housed many businesses over the years, including drug stores, clothing stores, dry goods, 5 and 10 stores, groceries, tailor shops, pool halls, cigar stores, restaurants, saloons, barber shops, movie houses, a bakery, an express office, and many more. The second floor had three business suites that answered as offices to several doctors, dentists, and attorneys, including Herman Willkie, the father of 1940 Presidential candidate Wendell L. Willkie. The remainder of the second and third floors were the Elwood Opera House.
The Elwood Opera House Block is the most historic building in Elwood, and a historically significant building in the region. Gustav Kramer always expected a high standard of Quality in all of his businesses, and was known as having the finest hotel, and the best theater in town. By 1893 the reputation of the Elwood Opera House was becoming well known, with the best entertainment supported by a good theater going audience. In all the big cities, the biggest stage stars and the best theatrical groups were beginning to hear of the Elwood Opera House. In an article printed in 1894 on the front page of The Elwood Daily Press the following statement was made, "Manager P.T. O'Brien is now booking some of the best attractions on the road, for the Elwood Opera House.
The fame of Elwood has gone abroad as a first class show town and better attractions are now seeking dates." Some of the famous people of their day that appeared at the Opera House were; William McKinley, Jane Coombs, the famouse Irish comedians Murray and Mack, Jule Walters, James B. Mackie, Robert Downing, Cecil Spooner, Al G. Field, Chas. A. Loder, Leslie and White, Conwell and Swan, Heavy Weight Champion John L. Sullivan, and many, many others. Some of the popular productions that played the Elwood Opera House were; "A Bunch of Keys", "Uncle Tom's Cabin", "Sidetracked", "Hamlet", "The Limited Mail", "Romio and Juliet", "Finnigan's Ball", and others. In the 1890's life was hard and people needed to laugh. Comedies were very popular, making up about 75% of the shows, but the Opera House offered a large variety of entertainment, including melodramas, mysteries, love stories, musicals, song and dance groups, sports exhibitions, animal shows, and minstrel variety shows (later known as Vaudeville). The people of Elwood could expect the best shows with the top entertainers of the day.
The Opera House also hosted many conventions, town meetings, weddings, and all Elwood High Schooled Graduations until 1905. As Elwood grew, so did the need for a larger opera house. In 1905 Gustav Kramer built the Kramer Grande Opera House one block south of the Elwood Opera House and closed the old opera house. (The Kramer Grande was short lived, as it burned down in 1919.) There was roller skating on the wood floors of the old Elwood Opera House until the building was sold to the Mason's Lodge in 1907. The Mason's completed a total remodeling in 1910, and it has changed little since. The old Opera House was home to the Mason's until 1999 when they sold the building to the third owner of the block, Randall Hall. During the 92 years that the lodge called this their home, many of Elwood's most prominent citizens, including Wendell L. Willkie, took their oaths and were members within the walls of the opera house. It is said that many famous Masons had visited, including John Wayne and Red Skelton. Although most of the building has been updated and remodeled since the 1999 purchase, the main room, or what the Mason's called the "Blue Room", has been preserved just as the Mason's left it, including the 1910 carpet on the floor, the high rounded ceiling, the marble finished pillars on the stage and down the side walls, and the beautiful balcony in the rear. Currently the Opera House hosts mostly wedding receptions, but have also had seminars, town meetings, teen band nights, and some entertainment, including David Allen Coe, Jason D. Williams, and George Riddle.
Randall Hall, is the third owner of the building, he and Keith Israel ( the great, great grandson of "Gus" the original owner) with a little help from the hostess, April Jordan, have been working to restore not only the building, but also restore what the Opera House meant to early Elwood, a place to host great entertainment and events.