Western Colorado’s Historic Opera Houses
[San Juan Silver Stage | September 2021 | By Kathryn R. Burke]
The late 1800s and early 1900s was an exciting time in Colorado. The discovery of gold and silver in the Rocky Mountains enticed thousands of prospectors to the high country. Many of the small towns that we now know today started out as rough mining camps with make-shift structures and a thriving red-light district. Within less than five years, many grew to have populations larger than they have now.
The stories of that era are fascinating and nearly impossible for us to conceive of today. Absent complicated and restrictive 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 and became gentrified, permanent buildings were were erected. The railroads brought high-end merchandise and wealthy mine owners and merchants, who built homes, merchantiles, banks, churches, and schools to serve the community. Elegant hotels, like the Beaumont in Ouray, Sheridan in Telluride, and Jerome in Aspen 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. Heated with woodstoves during the long, cold winters, fire was 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.
Many of the opera houses built back then, after a few bumps due to the boom-and-bust cycle common to mining communities, remain today. 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. A surprising number of the old opera houses, including the Sheridan in Telluride (1912), Wright in Ouray (1888), Wheeler in Aspen (1889), and Central City (1878) are vibrant venues today, once again drawing year-round audiences for top-name entertainment.
Technically, the Central City Opera House is not part of Western Colorado history. It is a predessor. 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 Districtv Constructed 1878, it has offered operatic and theatrical productions that drew prominent actors and performers from the beginning.
It was built by Welsh and Cornish miners and town residents, who had a tradition of music. Electricity was installed in 1896 and it 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 closed in 1927.
Two years later a dedicated band of Denver preservationists and music lovers formed the Central City Opera House Association. After moderate renovation, it reopened to performances. 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 opera house is home to the Central City Opera, now in its 89th year. The company presents world-class opera performed in the original language of the operas. It also hosts the Central City Opera Festival, a four-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.
Unlike Aspen and Telluride, which turned to skiing as a key tourism draw, Central City hoped to bring in gamblers (same old mining camp story, but with computerized casinos now rather than the gaming parlors of old with a brothel upstairs). However, Central City is located north of Black Hawk, which has four thriving casinos. So, it is the Opera House and all the businesses that support it, that keep the town’s cash registers ringing.
In the late 1870s, prospectors coming over from Silverton (including Irish-Canadian brothers Ed and George Wright) discovered silver—and gold. The surrounding mountains were so rich with ore, that at one time Ouray, which was incorporated in 1878, had 30 mines and a population of 1,000 people, about the same as it is today. In the beginning, though, it was little more than a rough mining camp with more horses and mules than people.
At the height of the mining era, the Red Mountain mining district, just to the south of Ouray, had 40 mines (mostly silver) and over 5,000 people! But Ouray, which incorporated in 1878, had gold, the ore that saved the town from decline following the repeal of the Sherman Act.
In 1881, the Wright brothers, prudent businessmen, had sold their mining claim and invested in other ventures. They purchased several lots at the southwestern corner of 5th Avenue & Main St. (Highway 550), where they first built the Wright Brothers Building, a two-story brick structure that was considered “a wonder of the time.” A few years later, to the south of this earlier building, the Wright brothers began construction of the Wright Opera House, partially because their upstanding and ambitious wives believed that the populace of Ouray needed to be provided with cultural opportunities to offset the influence of the dance halls, saloons, gambling dens, and houses of ill repute. The Wrights wanted to create a decent establishment that would feature cultural and educational programs of high quality for the entertainment and enlightenment of the young people and adults within the community.
Together with the Beaumont Hotel, Ouray County Court House, School House, and Miners Hospital (which now houses the Ouray County Museum), the Wright Opera House, with its decorative iron front and balcony (by the Mesker Brothers Iron Works), was one of the most imposing brick structures in Ouray during the late 1880s and early 1890s. The Wright is one of about 19 structures on Ouray’s Main Street that are believed to be Mesker iron facades, which makes Ouray’s Main Street what is believed to be one of the largest concentration of Mesker fronts still extant in the United States.
The grand opening of the Wright Opera House was held on December 4, 1888, with a benefit concert and ball. A number of years elapsed before the local residents began to accept this new cultural center for Ouray. Attendance was spotty until the collapse of the mining era. Then, unlike what befell the Wheeler in Aspen which succumbed to declining populations, the Wright gained in popularity as the town of Ouray continued to grow. More and more activities were held in the Wright Opera House, including cultural activities for the school. Musicians were brought from Denver and other more culturally rich areas to perform for the people in Ouray County. Finally the Wright Opera House became the center of activities for the city of Ouray and the remainder of the County during the early 1900s.
Mining towns were often the victims of ‘boom and bust’ a cycle which also impacted their opera houses. During the latter part of the 20th Century, Ouray’s population also declined—mining slowed down and tourism hadn’t bloomed yet. The Wright fell into a period of relative non-use. A few street-level establishments were open for business, but much of the interior of the building, falling into disuse, deteriorated.
Initially, Ed and Letticia ran the Opera House. which fulfilled its stated mission of “(decent) cultural entertainment and educational programs of high quality.” When Ed died in 1895, Letticia took over management of the building. She did a good job, but eventually the building was foreclosed on. George and Lenora Wright bought it and ran it successfully until 1915. The Opera House thrived during the early1900s before falling victim to a 1909 flood that roared through town when Portland Creek, above Ouray, overflowed. The building was somewhat repaired and continued as a community social hall until the Wrights sold it to the Masons, who couldn’t afford to maintain it. The Opera House subsequently changed hands several times, mostly used for retail and storage. In 1977 entertainer C.W. McCall reopened the Opera House for his San Juan Odyssey, a popular, 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 deteriorated over the next 25 years.
The Opera House was rescued in 2007 by non-profit organization. Vowing to “preserve and restore arts and culture in Ouray County,” the Friends of the Wright Opera House purchased it 2007. Ongoing restoration, including installation of an elevator—the stage and show venue is on the second floor—and opening up a tavern in what was once a storage room, has given the Wright new life.
Today, the Wright meets their expectations and more, with live music and theater, lectures and literary events, classes, gallery shows, first-run in-house and virtual movies, a busy tavern, and an outdoor “Summer Faire.” The town thrives on tourism with year-round activities, including the hot springs, Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, and world-class ice climbing, in addition to hiking, biking, water sports, and scenic tours.
Jerome Wheeler, a Civil War veteran, who at one time owned the Macy’s Department Stores, struck it rich with a mining claim. Within five years he sold his mine, purchased four others, built the Midland Railroad to Aspen, constructed the Jerome Hotel, and erected the 3-story, sandstone building he called the Wheeler Opera House.
It was the tallest building in town and took less than one year to complete! The entertainment venue was on the top floor, offices on the second, and retail space at street level. 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. The Wheeler quickly became part of a circuit of performance venues from Denver to Salt Lake City, hosting top entertainment.
Four years later, following the repeal of the Sherman Act, it went dark. Wheeler went bankrupt. In 1912, a fire nearly destroyed the building, and it was boarded up except for some retail spaces and remained so for 30 years. By 1930, Aspen’s population reached its all-time low of just over 500‑just 1/10th of what it was in the peak mining days!
With skiing becoming popular, the Wheeler limped along, mostly as a movie theater for 20 years. After World War II, the Wheeler was partially restored and slowly entertainment resumed.
Fortune struck again when a non-profit organization came to the rescue. In 1970 the Music Associates of Aspen facilitated a complete structural overhaul. By 1984, the Wheeler was restored, and a grand reopening held with a week-long celebration. Within a few years, the theater fully capable of hosting all types of performances year-round, it became a popular venue, bringing in big names and hosting festivals. It is still undergoing various improvements today.
Today, Aspen is an upscale ski resort. That and the Opera House keep the town booming all year long. [Read more about the Wheeler here]
1913, 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 developed 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, but miraculously flowed around, and not through, the Opera House. The Opera House eventually succumbed to prohibition in 1930, a period in which skiing began to become a popular pastime.
The building continued as the Segerberg Theater, mostly showing movies, until the early 1960s, when it was renamed the Sheridan Opera House (after the neighboring New Sheridan Hotel). In the early 1970s, after Telluride Ski Resort opened, Telluride’s focus shifted to community tourism. Bill and Stella Pence purchased the now-dilapidated building and altered the interior to host the still-popular Telluride Film Festival. They sold it in 1983 to J.W. Lloyd, who added a new entryway, conference room, and the 3rd-floor Vaudeville Bar. But, the building, with limited use, continued to deteriorate.
Then, along came the Sheridan Arts Foundation. Founded in 1991, and, along with the town of Telluride, it restored the crumbling building and its original splendor—a 10-year project that was completed in by the spring of 2010.
Today, the Sheridan Opera House House (like the other three in this story) is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. and is home to the Sheridan Arts Foundation (SAF). The popular 238-seat theater is a year-round entertainment venue, drawing an audience from the surrounding communities and visitors from around the world and hosting. top performers. 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!
Ann Satterthwaite in her book, Local Glories: Opera Houses on Main Street, Where Art and Culture Meet