Pam North, Central City. In 1877, the citizens of Central City began construction on a small but impressive opera house. Inspired by the native music traditions brought across the sea by the Cornish and Welsh miners, the stone theater emerged as unarguably the finest structure of its kind in the mountains, and was a great source of pride to the citizenry who had labored to have it built.
It had as well the distinction of being the original opera house in Colorado. Designed in elegant understatement by Robert S. Rosschlaub, a well-known Colorado architect of the time, the building also was graced by the elaborate trompe l’oeil murals of San Francisco artist John C. Massman.
The massive stone walls were paired with heavy timber supports that spanned Eureka Creek, and the theater’s dimensions were 55 feet by 115 feet, with a stage of 43 feet by 52 feet. Five hundred could be seated on the main floor, and another 250 in the balcony. The heavy stage curtain was decorated with a balcony scene on the Rhine, with the river and a castle in the background, and illumination was provided by a chandelier of a hundred gas jets, which cast a warm glow over all.
The Opera House’s grand opening in 1878 led the way to performances by many notable celebrities of the caliber of Edwin Booth, the most famous actor of his day, and attractions such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, starting a tradition of community theater that would encompass opera to vaudeville, and would showcase a variety of famous performers..
Before five years had elapsed, however, Central City’s mines had played out, and the Opera House was forced to close its doors, reopening only occasionally at the short-lived intervals when small waves of prosperity arose, and closing again as they ebbed. Dark since 1910, and disintegrating into ruin from disuse and neglect, the old opera house came into the ownership of Peter McFarlane, who happened to be one of its original contractors.
His heirs presented it in 1931 to the University of Denver and the Central City Opera Association, with the intent that it might be saved from the sad future that seemed inevitable from the previous lack of interest. Although its roof had deteriorated and fallen in, and mold and dirt were encrusted everywhere, its four-foot-thick walls still boasted their original integrity, intact and sound.
A campaign to restore the structure was undertaken, spearheaded by Ida Kruse McFarlane, Edna James Chappell, and Anne Evans (daughter of Governor Evans of the old Territorial days). They wished to revive its original use as an opera house rather than relegate it to serving as a museum.
A flash of inspiration spawned the idea to finance the restoration by the sale of memorial chairs for seating; a $100 contribution would allow the donor to assign a name to be hand carved on the back of the chair as a permanent testimonial to the person selected. In this manner some 250 seats were sold, raising the considerable sum to be applied to the tasks at hand.
The roof was repaired; the old frescoes adorning the interior walls were uncovered from years of grime and artfully restored by Denver citizen Allen True. The original handmade hickory chairs, which luckily had been preserved, regained their places (mixed blessing of historic value and discomfort). The stage was enlarged and improved, and the wonderful Empire-style decoration was restored to its forgotten splendor.
The completion of the Opera House heralded the 1932 premier offering of Camille, starring Lillian Gish, followed in 1933 by Gladys Swarthout in The Merry Widow and Walter Huston in Othello. Other notable productions ensued throughout the next few years: The Barber of Seville, The Bartered Bride, The Gondoliers, A Doll’s House, and Orpheus, to name a few. Mark Twain performed there.
In 1942 theater production was suspended for the duration of World War II, resuming in July 1946 with Verdi’s La Traviata and Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio. The Summer Festivals have become an annual tradition in Central City. The early festivals featured both opera and theater. More recent ones have highlighted opera and operetta. Notable names like Beverly Sills, Helen Hayes, Jerome Hines, Samuel Ramey, and Catherine Malfitano have appeared on the roster of celebrities who have traveled to Central City to perform..
The Central City Opera House Association continues to preserve and maintain this legendary landmark, ensuring that the history and tradition of this unique institution remain viable and can be enjoyed by all.
Opera season is imminent in Central City, so next week the Mountain-Ear will continue its coverage of the Central City Opera.