June 9, 2017

The Big Potential of Small-Town Opera Houses

  • By: Katherine Flynn

When D.C. resident, city planner, and author Ann Satterthwaite traveled in America’s small towns, she felt herself repeatedly drawn to opera houses (such as Tabor Opera House, a National Treasure) that had frequently been the entertainment centers of their communities in the 19th century.

In her 2016 book, Local Glories: Opera Houses On Main Street Where Art And Community Meet, she explores the rich history and, in many cases, the surprising rebirth of these buildings that tell a unique story about our country.

"A great many have been lost, but there are plenty more to restore," Satterthwaite says. We talked with her to learn more.

What sparked your interest in small-town opera houses?

I kept coming upon these opera houses in rather small towns. When I mean small towns, I mean places with populations of 1500 or 2500, all over the country. As I looked into it more, it turns out that toward the second half of the 19th century, really after the railroads laced the country with rail lines, every small town had what they referred to as an “opera house.” As it turned out, it was more than just a place where they had cultural activities. These were often in places where it was the only sort of neutral turf for a community hall.

That kind of spurred my interest because I’m a city planner. I’ve just come back from Red Cloud, [Nebraska,] which has a population of about 1,000, where Willa Cather grew up. She was very much influenced by her opera house—in fact, she was a theater critic before she was a novelist.

There were also thousands of people roaming the country as traveling entertainers [in the 19th century]. There were many theater companies, opera companies, and they were often regional. But you had magicians and you had hypnotists, and lecturers and politicians. There were a great many well-known performers like Sarah Bernhardt and Charles Dickens. Mark Twain was everywhere. There was more live entertainment then than at any other time in the history of the country. There were 500 troupes just doing Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1900, just to give you an idea of the number of troupes that were around.

What has the lifecycle of some of these small-town opera houses been like?

It’s interesting—when the moves came and people had cars, and they could go to bigger towns and see bigger events, and there were changing tastes and radio came about, the opera house became kind of an obsolete institution. Some limped along in very rural areas where there were few alternatives, but mostly, opera houses, by the 1930s and 1940s, were on their last legs. There was urban renewal, and small places wanted to upgrade their downtowns, and so many opera houses were the victim of the wrecking ball.

It wasn’t really until probably the 1970s that many people—usually often women in communities—had realized that they had had quite a treasure in their town, and that not much had been done about it. It spurred enough interest to form nonprofit organizations, and then they upgraded and rehabilitated the local opera houses. So, they were important not only for the restoration of the buildings themselves, but they also were helpful in resuscitating struggling downtowns.

Another factor which I don’t think people realize, but before, in the 19th century—the towns were relying on traveling entertainers, traveling theater companies. Today, we don’t have all those traveling troupes. Mark Twain isn’t going to every small town in upstate New York. So now the opera house activities are organized, and all the performances, by local and regional performers, so it is really communal creative energy now, which did not exist in the 19th century. It makes it even more exciting, really.

“A great many have been lost, but there are plenty more to restore. ”

Ann Satterthwaite

In terms of opera houses that were lost, like the Grand Opera in Denver, are there any others that you think are important for people to know about?

Probably architecturally the most significant of the grand opera houses was in Pueblo, Colorado, and that was designed by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler, which was possibly one of the best-known architectural teams at the time. It was built in the prairie architectural style, and it was a very handsome building. That building held for 32 years, I think it was 1922 when they had a terrible fire in the dead of winter, and the hoses froze, so that opera house disappeared. But probably in the country, it’s one of the most significant opera houses architecturally. It was built around 1900.

Was there anything in particular that surprised you during the course of your research?

Well, the hostility to theater really did surprise me. In Philadelphia, the first theater was built outside the city limits, because the city had edicts about theatergoing. Not until 1939 did the Methodists remove theatergoing as an evil activity from their guiding principles.

I was extremely struck by how sort of courageous so many of the performers were in trying to perform in very difficult circumstances, and it was really remarkable to me that they had such passion and commitment. These actors in the early days, before the trains, they were carrying all their gear, their costumes and their scenery, on horseback or by boat. I mean, it’s very tough travel, and the theaters weren’t the best-equipped, so it was really incredible commitment to a profession. And I was really struck by that.

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.

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