John Eby: Dowagiac’s version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Published 8:10 am Monday, December 13, 2010

So who inhabited those busts sculpted across the front of the late, great Beckwith Memorial Building like Dowagiac’s version of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cover? The usual arts suspects from an earlier era, you might say. Composers Ludwig van Beethoven (German, 1770-1827), Frederic Chopin (French-Polish, 1810-1849), Gioacchino Rossini (Italian, 1792-1868), Richard Wagner (German, 1813-1883), Giuseppe Verdi (Italian composer of operas, 1813-1901) and Franz Liszt (Hungarian pianist and composer, 1811-1886).

Francois Voltaire (French philosopher, 1694-1778), Robert Green Ingersoll (American lawyer and agnostic, 1833-1899), Thomas Paine (born in England, American political writer, 1737-1809), Victor Hugo (French author, 1802-1885), Ralph Waldo Emerson (American essayist and poet, 1803-1882), Walt Whitman (American poet, 1819-1892) and William Shakespeare (English poet and dramatist, 1564-1616).

George Eliot (pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans, English novelist, 1819-1880), George Sand (French novelist, 1803-1876), Mary Anderson (American actress, 1859-1940? Or the woman who invented windshield wipers?), Sarah Bernhardt (French actress, 1844-1923), Rachel Foster Avery (corresponding secretary of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1858-1919) and Dowagiac visitor Susan Brownell Anthony (American women’s suffrage advocate, 1820-1906).

Except for P.D. Beckwith’s, which fell and broke, and Ingersoll’s, which resides at his birthplace in upstate New York, medallions were rescued for The Museum at Southwestern Michigan College and have been joined by other items, including two stained glass windows.

The museum built its own memorial to the memorial theater as a labor of love. Most time capsules succumb to weather and time, their contents wet and ruined (think the box opened when the 1908 Civil War statue moved from behind City Hall to prominence in Burke Park. “This one, remarkably, came out in perfect condition,” according to Director Steve Arseneau, who spoke Dec. 1 on the Beckwith as “The One That Got Away.”

“We display the copper box and contents — business cards from people at the dedication, a list of the laborers and masons, Round Oak catalogs and speeches. The stuff came out in just amazing condition.

A gas fixture, a beautiful brass doorknob.”
Busts have been incorporated into pylons outside SMC’s Dale A. Lyons Building for campus theater.

Others are in storage.

Shellac meant to preserve sandstone actually proved detrimental to the exposed medallions by sealing in moisture. The others are holding up better.

The Beckwith “always loomed in the background of Dowagiac events,” Arseneau said.

Especially when Dowagiac graduations took place there alongside appearances by march maestro John Philip Sousa, vaudeville and opera.

A parade passed by it during the Spanish-American War.

Suffragettes at the 1912 Homecoming (“a festival gimmick to draw people who had moved out of town to come back and be welcomed back with a carnival and vendors” and bunting everywhere).

Bicycle Man made death-defying jumps three times a day.

In 1957, the Beckwith backdrop raised funds for Dowagiac’s National Guard Armory. Women shined shoes in its shadow.

I never knew before that a fire damaged the Beckwith in 1911, originating with the telephone exchange and confined to the second and third floors where Round Oak offices and showroom were located.

Two two-ton furnaces fell through to the first floor. A firewall protected the theater and Lee Brothers Bank, but it sustained $10,000 damage — and Round Oak operated without insurance by design.

With a hot foundry, Round Oak maintained its own fire brigade and paid for any damages that occurred despite safety measures. Live acts ended in 1928. It is believed the Marx Brothers and some Barrymores performed there. Round Oak vacated the Beckwith for offices in what is now the Daily News.

The bank and post office had also moved by then and live theater took a hit from the growing popularity of movies.

In 1926, the new school, Central, torn down for the Donald Lyons Health Center, opened with its own auditorium. Dowagiac had three theaters, The Century, The Chief and Caruso’s.

In the 1940s the Beckwith itself served as a movie house.

There was a Sherwin-Williams paint store and B&O Family Store and the Dowagiac Police Department was housed there facing Beeson Street and a pool hall.

The Wigwam restaurant occupied the stage and was like eating inside a tepee. The Beckwith was torn down in 1966, the year before the Beatles’ landmark recording, before historic preservation came into vogue. I sat on my bike amid trash strewn under the arches and found it creepy.

Never did get inside.

John Eby is managing editor of the Dowagiac Daily News. E-mail him at