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Opera Houses

Colby Opera HouseThe earliest entertainment facilities in Kansas were not so much theaters as community halls that supported entertainment and other social activities. Civic leaders and entrepreneurs responded to the need for a space large enough for a popular gathering to enjoy drama and music, as well as a variety of other community events. These businesses promoted and enhanced the communities that supported them. During the territorial period the community hall or town theater represented local success and permanence on the evolving Kansas frontier.

Before the development of the railroad network in the 1860s, traveling theatrical companies depended on river transportation. As a result, theaters operated primarily as summer institutions. Theater companies operating in the Midwest typically originated in New Orleans and followed the Mississippi River north, with major nodes in the established cities of Cincinnati, Ohio, and St. Louis, Missouri. From there, companies branched out to offer performances in the smaller river communities, such as Leavenworth and Atchison.

Kansas towns, eager to imitate eastern cities, encouraged the construction of opera houses. Many small opera and concert companies used these facilities as they toured the state. The opera house catered to a wide range of tastes. Popular acts included minstrel shows, operettas, variety shows, lectures, magic shows, medicine shows, and elocutionists.

Opera houses were larger and more ornate venues than community halls built primarily for hosting a variety of theatrical and musical productions. Interior design and furnishings varied greatly. Some contained one or two balconies, box seats, raked auditorium floors, permanent seating, and ornate walls and lighting fixtures. Others had plain walls of painted plaster and straight wooden chairs. Only the larger houses provided dressing room spaces. Most opera houses in Kansas did not have fly lofts for scenery but used roll drops and sliding wings for scene changes. The form of the building revealed the sophistication of its scenery-changing system.

Community halls occupied vernacular wood frame, brick, or stone buildings. Ornamentation was simple and reflected the popular commercial styles of the day. A brick two-part commercial block building might house a community hall with elements of Italianate, Late Victorian, Romanesque Revival, or Colonial Revival architecture. Ornamental wood or cast iron storefronts and cornices, ornamental window surrounds, arched windows, and decorative parapets were among the common exterior features of these buildings.

At the end of the 19th century thousands of American towns had some sort of facility that included an auditorium offering regular theatrical performances. Then several broad changes in both technology and the taste for popular entertainment combined to essentially end live stage performance. Touring variety theater companies, also known as vaudeville, began presenting specialty acts and musical comedies and revues in competition with traditional dramatic companies. A New York syndicate financed the vaudeville touring companies and restricted most of their shows to the larger towns on the main railroad routes. As a result, the number of professional stock companies touring the country soon diminished, and smaller towns could no longer afford professional entertainment.

Shortly after the turn of the 20th century the advent of silent films further eroded interest in live theater. The growth of the motion picture industry in the following decades and the subsequent disruption of the economy by the Great Depression effectively ended live stage performances.

By the 1920s, the opera house was no longer an important community symbol in Kansas. In the early decades of the century, owners of many live performance theaters, especially those with ground-floor auditoriums, converted their facilities to show motion pictures. Some second-story opera houses became meeting halls for social organizations, such as lodges, or were adapted for other non-theatrical uses. Others returned to their earliest use as a general community meeting place. The Columbian Theater in Wamego was successfully converted to a movie theater.

"Historic Theaters and Opera Houses of Kansas," Kansas Preservation, March/April 2005, page 7

Entry: Opera Houses

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: December 1969

Date Modified: February 2011

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.