Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Third Time's the Charm

Enjoying a place of prominence in Virginia City (NV) is the third of John Piper's opera houses. He had arrived in 1860 seeking his fortune not in gold but in some type of business.

In 1867, he acquired Maguire's Opera House; he lost it in the Great Fire of 1875. The second Piper's was built in 1878; it burned down in 1883. Urged on by friends and theater-goers, who also held benefits to fund the re-building efforts, Piper built this third Opera House in 1885 on the same site as the second.

With very little money (insurance companies did not yet exist), Piper built his third opera house with scrap lumber from the remains of partially-burned buildings. The exposed wall (below) on the second floor shows the variety of slats used.

The first window in the photo on the left is the ticket window and the second (smaller) window (far right in photo) is where men would check their guns.

The balconies, also constructed from scorched lumber, had very low railings, increasing the risk of falling over the edge.

This photo shows how the Opera House looked before the present restoration work began.

In what may have been another cost-cutting move, Piper did not build fixed rows of seats as in his earlier two opera houses. He wanted the building to serve as a multi-purpose auditorium, so he purchased wooden chairs for the orchestra and long benches for the audience.

The wooden floor had springs under the sub-flooring, designed for the fancy balls and lively dances held at the theater.

We had called about a tour, and as a result of the conversation, Lori Barrington, the Executive Director, kindly led us on tour filled with the history of the Opera House and stories of the town. It was clear she loved the Opera House and was equally comfortable crawling through an attic looking for a postcard or presenting the history of the Opera House to a group of visitors. She is a dynamo who treasures each bit of history she discovers.

People seated in these seats (below) were more interested in being seen, since the angle of the seats were directed more to the audience rather than the stage.
Lori also had many stories, such as: "We have a very small high school, so our basketball team may only have seven players. When our team walks into the gym, the opposing teams start to laugh.

"But we've won more state championships than any other school in our class. You see our guys walk to school and since we are at an elevation of 6200', we can run the other team ragged whether we're home or away."

Four plaques hang in the Opera House with the names of people who have appeared there. (Lori acknowledges that some may have appeared at the first or second opera house or have appeared in a movie that was shown at the Opera House.)

Another story: Robert Lincoln, the oldest son of President and Mrs. Lincoln, was standing on a train station platform at the entrance of the car. There was some crowding, and when the train began to move, he dropped into the open space, but was quickly pulled up and onto the platform. His rescuer was Edwin Booth (his name is on the plaque in the photo), one of the 19th century's great Shakespearean actors, and John Wilkes Booth's older brother. A Booth saved a Lincoln.

Virginia City, at the height of the gold and silver mining boom was a city of about 25,000 and one of the wealthiest per capita in the world. It was on the major route, along with New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Denver, and San Francisco, for touring theater companies. This poster for "Uncle Tom's Cabin" hangs in the lobby of the theater. A ticket to this play was one of the hottest tickets in town. It sparked considerable discussion and debate and brought the issue of slavery to the attention of large numbers of people in the 1860s.

The posters traveled with the company. When it was torn or damaged, repairs resulted in different colors appearing and pieces not matching up cleanly.

Maude Adams, who appeared on stage between 1890 to 1910, was the first actress to successfully portray Peter Pan in Peter Pan. She was beloved by people because she cared about the general public, on one occasion refusing to perform until the higher prices charged for tickets to her performance were returned to the audience.

She preferred spending time with the backstage crews during a break in rehearsal rather than retreating to her room.

In contrast to Adams, was the diva-like personality of Lillie Langtry. She was to appear in Piper's in 1887 and traveled to Carson City (NV) in her custom-designed railroad car--a blue car decorated with wreaths of lillies on its sides. Railroad officials did not think that her 74-foot railroad car would make it through the tunnel, so she had to travel to Virginia City by carriage.

She was not happy. Only after a red carpet was laid from the International Hotel across the street to the Opera House did she feel she was being properly treated.

I wonder if this was the beginning of the red carpet walk.

(Information obtained from Lori Barrington and More Than a Song and a Dance: The Heyday of Piper's Opera House by Patricia D. Cafferata.)

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