Western Colorado’s Historic Opera Houses
[San Juan Silver Stage | September 2021 | By Kathryn R. Burke]
Boom & Bust
When the opera houses were built, back in the late 1800s and early 1900s during Colorado’s hardrock mining days, it was an exciting time. Many of the small towns that we know now started out as rough mining camps and, within less than five years, grew to have populations larger than they do today.
Aspen started out as a mining camp around 1880. named for its abundance of aspen trees. The population fell to less than 1,000 during the ‘Quiet Years’ following the collapse of the silver market in 1893. It boomed again in the mid-20th century with the development of the skiing industry—a story typical of the boom-and-bust cycles of Colorado’s high-country mining towns.
Telluride was founded in 1878 as Columbia. It was renamed Telluride in 1887—not for the sometimes quoted “to hell you ride,” but for the gold and silver telluride minerals found in other parts of the state, athough in Telluride. The town gained some notoriety in 1889 when Butch Cassidy robbed the bank, and again, around 1900, when Colorado’s Labor Wars turned violent there. Like other mining towns, Telluride succumbed to the aftermath of the Silver Panic, then boomed again with tourism and skiing.
Ouray was established after prospectors arrived in 1875 and discovered gold, the ore that saved the town from collapsing after the Silver Panic. At one time, the camp had more horses and mules than people. The town was incorporated in 1876 and renamed Ouray after Chief Ouray of the Utes. By 1877 it had a population of 1,000, about the same as today. At the height of the mining era, Ouray County had over 30 active mines. Today, the economy is based on year-round tourism, but it is not a ski town.
The stories of the mining era are fascinating and nearly impossible for us to conceive of today. Absent complicated permitting requirements and answering an immediate need for shelter and services, towns sprang up nearly overnight. First came the assay offices (for filing claims) along with bars, brothels, and gaming parlors for the miners’ entertainment. The latter quickly drew gamblers and “shady ladies” in the “houses of ill repute.”
As the towns prospered, merchants and their families arrived, building homes, banks, churches, and schools. Elegant hotels, like the Beaumont in Ouray and the Sheridan in Telluride, drew wealthy investors and adventurers. Opulent dining establishments soon followed, along with stores carrying fine-quality merchandise. It didn’t take long before there came a call for cultural opportunities to serve the more permanent (and genteel) population—those that resided on the not-so-shady sides of the street.
The opera house filled that need, providing top-name (and socially acceptable) entertainment. These imposing structures also proved to be surprisingly resilient, mainly because they were constructed with brick and stone. The rough mining camps had been built with wood and heated with wood stoves during the long, cold winters. Fires were common and often wiped out entire towns that were quickly rebuilt. Communities with an eye toward long-term survival that also served as supply centers and railheads prudently began to replace wood with building materials less susceptible to fire.
A surprising number of the opera houses built back then are still with us today. They have survived fire, flood, avalanche, the 1893 Silver Panic, and a plethora of bumps due to the boom-and-bust cycle that plagued the mining communities, yet the show goes on
Ann Satterthwaite in her book, Local Glories: Opera Houses on Main Street, Where Art and Culture Meet, writes that in Colorado, 132 opera houses were built in 68 towns between 1860 and 1920.
Here in Western Colorado, many have been preserved, renovated, or restored after nearly succumbing to neglect and deterioration, then finding new life when tourism replaced mining. The Sheridan, the Wright, and the Wheeler are three of them, vibrant venues once again drawing year-round audiences for top-name entertainment.
Sheridan Opera House, Telluride
During the 1880s, the town of Telluride, briefly known as Columbia, quickly blossomed into a small, mining-supported community. Within 10 years, the population had grown to 5,000 people. By 1909 the Telluride mining district had produced $60,000,000 in ore, and the town soon became the attraction point for railroad excursions, picnics, circus acts, and riding clubs. As high culture blossomed, wealthy mine owners and aristocrats began to host lavish parties, balls, and evenings of entertainment. In 1912, J. A. Segerberg, manager of the New Sheridan Hotel, recognized Telluride’s need for a venue to host such events and began to develop the plans for a three-story intimate opera house. Construction of the Segerberg Opera House was completed in July of 1913 and featured delicately painted floral stencils throughout the theater. The original decorative painting of the Opera House is a rare example of the transitional period between the Art Nouveau style of the late 1800s and the Craftsman style of the 1920s.
The Segerberg Opera House survived a devastating flood the next year and a mudslide that buried the adjacent Sheridan Hotel in 10 feet of debris. The Opera House eventually succumbed to prohibition in 1930, a period in which skiing began to become a popular pastime.
The Segerberg Theater reopened for organized programming in the early 1960s. Renamed the Sheridan Opera House after the neighboring New Sheridan Hotel, the Opera House once again became home to live entertainment. In the early 1970s, after Telluride Ski Resort opened and Telluride focused on community tourism, the Sheridan, then owned and restored by Bill and Stella Pence, hosted the still-popular Telluride Film Festival. But the building continued to deteriorate and was in severe jeopardy of commercial development.
The Sheridan Arts Foundation, founded in 1991, came to the rescue and, along with the town of Telluride, restored the crumbling building—a 10 year project that was completed in by the spring of 2010.
Today, the Sheridan Opera House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is home to the Sheridan Arts Foundation (SAF). A popular, year-round entertainment venue, the Sheridan draws an audience from the surrounding communities and visitors from around the world. It has hosted top performers such as Jewel, Smokey Robinson, John Prine, Taj Mahal, Peter Yarrow, Jimmy Buffet, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Paul Horn, Shawn Colvin, Jackson Browne, and more!
In 1875, Canadian brothers Ed and George Wright, originally of Irish ancestry, were prospecting in Silverton when they decided to snowshoe over to the Mount Sneffles mining district near Ouray.
The move was fortuitous. They struck it rich at the Wheel of Fortune load near the mountain. Two years later they sold it for $160,000, subsequently investing in various mining ventures. Both soon found wives, ambitious ladies who deplored the town’s thriving red-light district and convinced their husbands to provide cultural opportunities to offset the influence of the dance halls, saloons, gambling dens, and houses of ill repute.
In 1881, Ed and George purchased lots at the corner of 5th Avenue & Main Street where they built the Wright Brothers Building, a two-story brick structure that was considered “a wonder of the time.” A few years later, just south of it, they constructed the Wright Opera House, with the intent of establishing a place that would feature “(decent) cultural and educational “programs of high quality for the entertainment and enlightenment of the young people,” including their own children, and others. The grand opening was held December 4, 1888, and the Opera House soon fulfilled its stated mission.
When Ed (who was the less popular of the two brothers) died suddenly in 1895, his wife Letticia took over management of the Opera House. She did a good job of it, but the results of the Silver Panic of 1893 and subsequent mine closings caught up with her. When the building was foreclosed on, George and Lenora Wright took over the Opera House, which thrived during the early1900s.
And then the Opera House fell victim to a disastrous flood that roared through town when Portland Creek, above Ouray, overflowed in 1909. The building was somewhat repaired and continued as a community social hall until George Wright sold it in 1915 to the Masons.
The Opera House changed hands several times, eventually being purchased by the Kuboske family in 1965 for their scenic Jeep® tour operation. In 1977, entertainer C.W. McCall reopened the Opera House for his San Juan Odyssey, a big-screen production featuring the scenic San Juans.
In 1982, Portland Creek overflowed again and once more filled the building with mud and debris. Following that, various enterprises occupied the structure, which gradually fell into disuse and began to deteriorate.
But—or maybe yet—and following the boom-bust-boom cycle of other opera houses, the building was rescued by a non-profit organization. Wanting to “preserve and restore arts and culture in Ouray County,” the Friends of the Wright Opera House purchased it 2007. Today, although it’s still undergoing restoration, the Opera House meets their expectations and more, with live music and theater, lectures and literary events, classes, gallery shows, first-run in-house and virtual movies, and more.
Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House, erected of stone during the 1890s, is one of the lucky survivors. How it came to be (and almost didn’t survive) is a fascinating story. Jerome Wheeler—a Civil War veteran who at one time owned the Macy’s Department Stores—had moved his family to Manitou Springs, where he heard about the silver strikes in Aspen (originally called Ute City). Within five years he had sold his interest in Macy’s, purchased four mines, and built the Midland Railroad to Aspen.
In 1889, Wheeler built the four-story sandstone Hotel Jerome and a sister project two blocks away in the center of town, collectively called the Wheeler Opera House. It took less than one year to complete and was a state-of-the-art assembly space, with steam heat and electric lighting. Reflecting Aspen’s accomplishment of being the first city west of the Divide to be wired for electricity, the Opera House featured a central chandelier with 36 electric lights. Wheeler quickly became part of a circuit of performance venues from Denver to Salt Lake City, hosting top notch entertainment.
Four years later, it went dark. Following the Silver Crash of 1893, Wheeler went bankrupt. Aspen’s population dwindled from 12,000 to 700. Then in 1912, a fire nearly destroyed the building, and it was boarded up except for some retail spaces, and remained so for 30 years.
Fortune struck again. As had happened in Telluride, skiing became a new economic engine for Aspen. The Wheeler Opera House was somewhat renovated and once again became a performance venue. It limped along for 20 more years, mostly as a movie theater until 1970, when the Music Associates of Aspen, the corporate body of the Aspen Music Festival, led the effort for a complete structural overhaul. Aspen was once again booming and filled with cultural endeavors, but it lacked a place to hold them. The Wheeler filled the bill.
The building was restored, and a grand reopening held in 1984 with a week-long celebration. Soon it was once again hosting top-notch entertainment. Today, the Wheeler is a leader in producing exceptional festivals—the Aspen Laugh Festival, Aspen Mountain Film Festival, and Shining Mountains Film Festival—all celebrating the comedy arts, global issues, and the craft of songwriting.
Through boom and bust and boom again, the Wheeler Opera House has proven a resiliency and tenacity that describes the cycles of Colorado’s mountain towns.
Central City Opera House, Central City
Technically, the Central City Opera House is not part of Western Colorado history. It’s a predecessor. But it is worth mentioning here, because it is the oldest opera house in Colorado. Located near Denver, in the Central City/Black Hawk Historic District, it was constructed in 1878 and has offered operatic and theatrical productions have drawn prominent actors and performers from the beginning.
The Opera House was built by Welsh and Cornish miners and town residents, who had a tradition of music. Electricity was installed in 1896. The building was renovated, without structural changes in 1903. In 1910, it was opened it as a motion picture theatre, but fell into gradual disuse during the 1920s and was finally closed in 1927.
Then, two years later, and as happened with so many of its contemporaries, a dedicated band of preservationists (from Denver) and music lovers formed the Central City Opera House Association. The building was renovated and re-opened as the Opera House. In the 1980s and 1990s, the entire structure was restored, including the foundation and replacement of the 1920-era lighting relic by a computerized lighting system. In 1999, wooden chairs were replaced with plush new theater seating.
Today,this 550-seat jewel box opera house, is home to the Central City Opera, now in its 89th year of performances. The company presents world-class opera in an intimate historic venue, performing all of its operas in their original languages. It also hosts the Central City Opera Festival, a 4-week extravaganza of storytelling and powerful voices, featuring classical music’s biggest talents, the Central City Opera Orchestra, and rising stars from the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Artists Training Program.