Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Opera Houses in the 1800s by Bea Tifton

 

When one thinks of live entertainment in the Old West, a saloon girl singing a bawdy song might come to mind, but in many frontier towns, as soon as the area became settled, someone would open an opera house. 

Wheeler Opera House, Aspen Colorado 1890
 Opera houses in the 1800s did not only produce opera, but were vital places in the community for “presenting plays, concerts, lectures, minstrel and variety shows,” as well as other events for the community. (https://historictheatres.org/blog/2017/10/27/19th-century-opera-houses-and-flat-floor-events/

 With the advent of the railroad, opera companies, entertainers, and lecturers could travel from town to town more easily. Opera houses provided an escape from the tedium of hard work in everyday life and the events would be talked about for weeks.

Greenwall's Opera House Ft. Worth, 1907

Some opera houses adjoined a municipal government building. These opera houses tended to be built to add culture to the communities. Other opera houses were commercial enterprises built for sheer profit, usually above a saloon.

One example of a typical opera house of the 1800s is the Granbury Opera House, known as Kerr’s Hall in its earliest incarnation. The Granbury Opera House was built in the small town near Fort Worth, Texas, in 1886 by Henry Kerr. Kerr’s Hall was fancy, with “Gas light [that] flickered across the gorgeous red plush (probably red velvet) and gentlemen were asked to remove their spurs for fear of spoiling the d├ęcor.” (https://www.granbury.org/707/Granbury-Opera-House

Granbury Opera House
 Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth, Lily Langtry, and Sarah Bernhardt were among many other famous people of the time who frequently toured through Texas.  Road shows, which were a type of early variety show, also came through, as well as magicians, Shakespearean troupes, acrobats, and lecturers. Town dances with bands were also held in Kerr’s Hall. Amateur theater blossomed as well.  Many Victorians disapproved of these productions, feeling they were coarse and inappropriate. Some young people had to cross the street when they approached Kerr’s Hall, which was located over a saloon

  The theater was built in 1886 but it did not hire acts until 1891. The Opera House closed its doors in 1911, reportedly after temperance crusader Carrie Nation destroyed the saloon and six others on the square.

In 1974 the Granbury Opera Association bought the historical building and it is a thriving theater once again.

 Opera houses in general began to close as movies became more popular. Fortunately, many historic opera houses have been preserved. Opera houses still stand in many small towns, even if they are no longer the bastion of culture and civilized behavior they once were. 

 

Further Reading:

 https://www.granbury.org/707/Granbury-Opera-House

https://historictheatres.org/blog/2017/10/27/19th-century-opera-houses-and-flat-floor-events/

http://www.jamestownohiooperahouse.com/website__opera_house_history.pdf