Sunday, May 10, 2020

Opulence In A Mining Town

By Suzanne Norquist

Visit any historic Colorado mining town, and you will find an opera house (or at least hear about one that used to exist). But this icon of culture doesn’t fit the image of the male-dominated, rough and tumble, saloon-filled cluster of ramshackle dwellings . . . Which is exactly why prominent members of the community built opera houses. As a town grew, men brought their families.

Dance halls and saloons provided theatrical entertainment. Unacceptable entertainment for upstanding citizens. But an opera house oozed sophistication. No matter that few of the productions were actually operas. These venues boasted Shakespeare, musicals, vaudeville, burlesque shows, and, sometimes, opera. They served as a multipurpose facility.

Touring companies traveled from town to town on circuits mostly connected by railroads, although a theatrical group could come across the mountains by stage. A letter found in the Tabor Opera House in Leadville, Colorado, describes one actress’s journey from Denver. Her stagecoach tipped over six times.

The Silver Circuit started in Denver and traveled to Salt Lake City or San Francisco with stops at the major mountain town opera houses along the way. They would perform in Denver for a week and then spend a night in each town.

The Tabor Opera House in Leadville, Colorado, was arguably the most opulent structure in the area. It was built in 1879 in a town that housed four banks, five churches, about twenty hotels, and eighty-two saloons.

The three-story structure seated over eight-hundred people. It boasted gas lights, and the modern folding seats featured gilt cast iron with red velvet upholstery. There was room for a fifteen-piece orchestra in front of the stage. A third-floor catwalk connected it to the Clarendon Hotel.

The dressing rooms were the most elaborate in the west, including a private room for the leading lady and one for the leading man. The opera house owned seven sets of scenery instead of the usual four.

Although the venue attracted famous performers, including a cast from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and possibly Harry Houdini, the town remained a rough-and-tumble place at heart.

Opening night ticket sales were disappointing because a public hanging took place the same night. The opera house couldn’t compete. And one of the businesses on the first floor of the building was a saloon. Patrons could get a drink there between acts.

The miners loved Irish poet Oscar Wilde, not because of his lecture on aesthetic theory (a branch of philosophy dealing with beauty), but because he could hold his liquor.

Opera houses brought culture and civilization to Colorado’s historic mining towns. Most of the remaining ones are in small towns where their space wasn’t needed for redevelopment. The Tabor Opera house in Leadville offers tours as it raises money for much-needed repairs. After a tour, I decided to write my first novella, “A Song for Rose” in the Bouquet of Brides Collection, about a girl who wanted to sing in the opera house.

Suzanne Norquist is the author of two novellas, “A Song for Rose” in A Bouquet of Brides Collection and “Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection. Everything fascinates her. She has worked as a chemist, professor, financial analyst, and even earned a doctorate in economics. Research feeds her curiosity, and she shares the adventure with her readers. She lives in New Mexico with her mining engineer husband and has two grown children. When not writing, she explores the mountains, hikes, and attends kickboxing class.

She authors a blog entitled, Ponderings of a BBQ Ph.D.

“Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection
Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.
Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist
Rockledge, Colorado, 1884

Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?

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  1. Fascinating post! Eighty-two saloons-rough and tumble, indeed! Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks. I was a little shocked to see the number of saloons.

  2. Very interesting! I never heard about this affinity for opera houses in mining towns. I chuckled at the actress's stagecoach dilemma. Great post, thanks for highlighting this!

  3. Great history. I love touring old buildings, and hearing the stories. And I love that story, "A Song for Rose".