Upstairs Opera Houses in Colorado
By Cathleen Norman
In this second article in a series celebrating May as National Historic Preservation Month, DCI invited guest author Cathleen Norman from The Donning Company Publishers to share stories of opera houses in Colorado communities.
At the turn of the last century, every self-respecting community – from small towns to large cities – aspired to have an “opera house.” Often located above a storefront in a two-story building in the heart of the business district, the opera house proudly took its civic place on Main Street. It became a venue for respectable entertainment and thrived as a social focal point. More than 100 opera houses sprang up in Colorado from the 1870s into the 1910s. The Central City Opera House and Denver’s Tabor Grande Opera House were celebrated as the state’s largest and most elaborate opera venues, but most Colorado opera houses were located upstairs from another business.
Some opera halls actually hosted operatic performances. In the late 1800s, opera flourished as esteemed entertainment for the cultured classes, but often offered contemporary themes of the time. La Traviata, by Guiseppi Verde, one of the most influential composers of the nineteenth century, told the story of a fallen woman. La Boheme, composed by Giocommo Puccini, depicted the lifestyle of young “bohemian” artists living in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West romanticized the America’s western frontier.
However, most opera houses hosted everything but opera. Various events and entertainment unfolded in the upstairs spaces ─ gala balls and dancing parties, Shakespearean plays and vaudeville acts, high school graduations and lodge meetings. Men crowded in for boxing matches and patriotic citizens sweated through bands playing marches for Fourth of July celebrations.
By the 1930s, film had eclipsed live performance. Some opera houses became movie theaters, others slipped into decline and many were demolished. Fortunately several old upstairs opera houses have been revived, some embracing new uses. These are just a few…
Dickens Opera House, Longmont. Town father William Dickens erected an impressive redbrick building at the town’s premier intersection to contain his Farmers National Bank, with opera hall above. The gracious upstairs space opened in 1881 and hosted college classes, minstrel shows and traveling musicians, as well as town meetings, national guard training, spelling bees, political rallies and firemen’s fundraising balls. Favorite theatrical performances included “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Ten Nights in a Bar-Room.” Local groups meeting in the upstairs space, included the ladies of the Longmont Christian Temperance Union and farmers from the local grange.
The Dickens Opera House served as the city’s cultural and social center through the 1920s, before falling into disuse. Today, the dusty, cobwebbed opera hall has been revived as a venue for nationally touring music acts such as Tab Benoit, Tony Furtado, Trombone Shorty, The Infamous Stringdusters, and Reverend Horton Heat.
Lake City Armory-Opera Hall. This red brick building opened with a Thanksgiving Eve Ball in 1883, pronounced by The Lake City Silver World newspaper as “the most brilliant assemblage that ever gathered in this city.” A rather rare one-story opera house, it offered dramatic productions on a large stage in the hall’s west end, while the “Pitkin Guards” used the east end for their National Guard meetings and drills. Three years after its completion, the roof had to be rebuilt after collapsing under heavy snows. The Lake City Armory saw activity during an early 1890s labor incident in which striking miners broke into the armory and stole the weapons therein. The Lake City Greens slapped the basketball up and down the wooden floor in the 1910s and 1920s, and the annual Washington’s Birthday Masquerade raised funds for the fire department. Today, the public venue contains the Teen Center and practice space for the Lake City Hoofers clogging classes, as well as community events likes the annual October Hunters’ Ball.
Wright Opera House, Ouray. H. E. Wright arrived on skis from Silverton during Ouray’s first settlement. He and his brother erected an elaborate building using profits from their Wheel of Fortune Mine. Finished in 1888, the expansive structure with a double storefront had a wedding cake façade, a confection of cast iron manufactured by the Mesker Brothers of St. Louis and prized for its fire-proof qualities. San Juan Hardware Company and the City Drugstore operated on the ground floor. Upstairs, the performance hall seated a crowd of 500 with a stage stunningly embellished with a William H. Jackson photograph of Mount Sneffels. Townsfolk hiked up the narrow, steep staircase to watch performances by local thespians, music recitals, concerts by the Ouray Magnolia Band, elocution contests, school basketball games and birthday parties. The Victorian beauty was acquired this year by the Friends of the Wright Opera House after their three-year capital fund campaign.
Salida Opera House. When it opened with a New Year’s Eve ball in 1889, the Salida Opera House was praised as “in every way superior to any in Colorado except the Tabor Grande.” Its first theatrical production was “Alone in London” for a standing-room-only audience on January 16. It replaced the original 1881 Salida Opera House, one of 30 structures destroyed in a downtown fire. The statuesque opera building with its bracketed cornice and centered pediment hosted performances of touring troupes on The Silver Circuit served by the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. Its classic brick façade of was unmasked recently by the removal of stucco that had been hiding it for 50 years. However, structural damage has landed the Salida Opera House on Colorado’s 2011 Most Endangered Places List.
Butte Opera House, Cripple Creek. The Butte Concert and Beer Hall opened its doors in 1896 on the west end of Bennett Avenue. The second story became the Butte Dancing Academy, an armory and then a skating rink. As the mining district withered, the Butte became one of many empty buildings on Bennett Avenue. Once almost in shambles, the Butte since acquired and restored by the City of Cripple Creek, is now home to the Thin Air Theater Company that performs melodrama, like “Calamity Jane” and “Vampire or Cripple Creek.”
This is just a round-up of historic opera houses that survive around Colorado. Other upstairs opera houses languish in Canon City, Golden, Idaho Springs, Windsor, Brush and Loveland. Meanwhile, the 1882 Smith Opera House in Gunnison, 1881 Opera House in Aspen, and 1913 Sheridan Opera House in Telluride have been restored to their original glory.
Cathleen Norman writes about history and preservation for several Colorado publications. A preservation consultant from 1991 through 2008, she now works for Donning Company, a heritage publishing firm. This article has been reprinted with permission from the author.