CXXIII. Tea at the Opera House

April 18, 2014 — On Saturday, April 12, I attended afternoon tea and a fashion show at our historic Smyrna Opera House. “Trends, Tulips, and Tea” was the theme of this lovely affair. I was honored to be a guest of our Smyrna Downtown Renaissance Association. I love teas, so this occasioned for me a remembrance of teas past.

When I was little, my aunt took me each year to a tea held on the grounds of an estate in Villanova, Pa., out on the Philadelphia Main Line, west of the city. The Women’s Auxiliary of the Presbyterian Orphanage, the home then located in Southwest Philadelphia until 1960, held this annual tea and fashion show to raise funds. My aunt served on the Auxiliary. She loved children, though she and my uncle had none. Attending the tea was one way I benefited from my aunt’s love.

Each year on a muggy, usually sunny May or June afternoon, I dressed in hat and white gloves and we drove out to the estate of the two elderly Dunlap sisters, heiresses to the American Stores grocery fortune. There, rows of folding, white wooden chairs were set up on the deep lawn, divided by a center aisle for the models to walk among the guests, and fronted by my favorite – the table of tea sandwiches, tasty dainty sandwiches without crusts, prettily decorated cookies, and the tea.

While my aunt and the other Auxiliary women set up, I roamed the lush green, terraced lawns, among the spruces, pines and cedars, beneath the shade of the maples, oaks and other great trees. I’d wander down the terraces, past beds of colorful flowers down to the swimming pool, no longer in use, leaves the sole entities floating in the dark green water. There I’d stand, in rivulets of nostalgia, imagining the old days where poolside loungers holding tall, cool drinks got splashed with the laughter of gleeful swimmers.

After the tea and fashion show, while the women were putting away the silver tea service and leftover sandwiches and cookies inside the house, I’d wander through the parlors and dining room of that gray granite Tudor mansion, admiring the Oriental rugs and trying out the chairs and sofas of the formal, antique furniture.


Robinson Hall, designed by architect George Bishop Page, built 1907.

Robinson Hall, designed by architect George Bishop Page, built 1907.

The Presbyterian Orphanage evolved into the Presbyterian Children’s Village, with many programs to help children and families. They moved to a Rosemont estate, west of Philadelphia, donated by Samuel Robinson, co-founder and a CEO of Acme Markets, then part of the American Stores Company. In 2003 the Presbyterian Children’s Village purchased an additional facility, a convent in Southwest Philadelphia where they opened the Preheim Center that serves as a hub for community based services.

Wanamaker's Grand Crystal Tea Room

Wanamaker’s Grand Crystal Tea Room

In the months intervening until the next year’s tea and fashion show, I sipped afternoon tea and ate cucumber and cream cheese, ham salad and egg salad tea sandwiches at the Philadelphia Wanamaker’s department store ninth floor Grand Crystal Tea Room. These were the happy occasions when my aunt, my mother, or one of my grandmothers would stop for refreshment while we were out shopping. Macy’s owns this venerable department store now, and the Crystal Tea Room serves only as a private catering hall. Those days of the grand department store where all the saleswomen wore black dresses and really wanted to help you are gone. Still, today, whenever I’m watching a movie scene or in a place where I hear the clatter of dishes, I’m teleported to Wanamaker’s tearoom.

Roberta at the Ritz Fountain

Mother at the Ritz Fountain

Tea at the Ritz highlighted my daughter’s and my 1990s visit to my mother in Naples, Fla. I took photos of that cherished occasion, one of my mother in her beautiful ice-aqua dress with the big aqua flower, seated on the fountain rim below the flagstone terrace before the high Palladian windows.

“Trends, Tulips, and Tea” for women, a Palladian event in the sense of high, graceful and grand, raises funds to support Smyrna Opera House programs and helps support local artists. In the early days, Opera House entertainment included “General” Tom Thumb, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and lectures by Frederick Douglass, politician William Jennings Bryan, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., and suffragettes Lucy Stone and Olive Logan. In later years, one might imagine women swooning in the aisles at the sight of Rudolf Valentino slipping across the silver screen into a tent as “The Sheik” in 1921.

On Christmas night, 1948, holiday lights strung along the mansard roof sparked a fire. Strong winds showered sparks onto nearby buildings while firefighters from nine companies chased the escaping flames long into the night. As firefighters dowsed surrounding structures the water froze on the buildings, sheathing them in protective ice. When it was over, a stalwart fireman had to be chipped from his ladder, where he had remained frozen to the rungs for two hours, as spray from his hose encased him in ice. He could have used a good cup of tea. In the end, the clock tower and third floor were destroyed.

Built in 1870 as the Town Hall to bring together communities breached by the Civil War, the Smyrna Opera House was restored in 2003, through the fundraising efforts of the Smyrna-Clayton Heritage Association formed in 1994 and headed by President John W. Dickinson until his death in May 2001. The Association, a nonprofit organized to offer arts and cultural opportunities to the community, raised $3.6 million to restore the Opera House, half a million donated by Smyrna-Clayton citizens and businesses.

Local craftsmen performed all the work on the Opera House and the new Annex. Meticulously and beautifully restored, the Opera House itself is a treat to behold. A high, serene feeling embraces me when I enter.

Restored 19th century opera house. Frederick Douglass spoke here.

Restored 19th century opera house. Frederick Douglass spoke here.

The Opera House hall features a hand-painted coffered ceiling, a balcony, refurbished original stage and sprung hardwood floors. The 18-inch thick walls have been hand-painted and gilded by members of The Smyrna-Clayton Heritage Association, The acoustics are terrific.

Last Saturday, the first annual afternoon of high fashion, traditional tea and spring bazaar was held in the auditorium hall to a sold-out house, 139 women, some wearing hats and gloves, seated at round tables, according to our place cards. Each table was laid with the fine china of one of the committee volunteers. In the tall stemmed glasses were folded linen napkins, like tulip buds, in the colors of lilac and moss green. The teas offered were among my favorites; the chilled strawberry soup was divine as were the luxuriously large scones complemented by the orange marmalade, lemon and crème fraiche toppings. I especially liked the chicken salad tea sandwiches. While we enjoyed all the delicate and tasty savories and sweets, finishing with chocolate-dipped strawberries, we were treated to a show of fashions modeled by volunteers, and Susan Wolfe told us a fascinating story of the history of tea.

If you missed this stellar performance of the “Trends, Tulips, and Tea” committee led by chair Robin Bruner, get your hat and gloves. There is an encore. The tea has become a trend: do mark your calendar for next year, Saturday, March 28, 2015, from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m.

—Samantha Mozart