Western opera houses connected their communities to culture | PostIndependent.com

Western opera houses connected their communities to culture

Carla Jean Whitley
cj@postindependent.com
Durand Opera House opened in 1892 and operated under a number of names through the years.
Glenwood Springs Historical Society |

Significant dates

1888 Durand’s Opera House was built, originally as a one-story building that housed a stove and a hardware store.

1891 The retail space was converted into an opera house, with the addition of a rear fly loft, stage and auditorium. (Sources vary on the date, some stating 1891 and others 1892.)

May 1891 President Benjamin Harrison visits.

1901 John Philip Sousa and his band perform.

1905-1910 The building was known as Glenwood Springs Opera House.

1919 The building became the Odeon Theater. It hosted dances, silent movies and other events.

1926 The buildings Art Deco brick façade was likely added around this time.

July 30, 1926 The building hosted a prize fight sponsored by actor Tom Mix, who was in town filming “The Great K&A Train Robbery.”

1927 The building was renamed, again, to Odeon Dance Hall.

1946 The building connected to an adjacent structure and converted into an auto garage.

1956 The building housed a rifle range, a store and a small restaurant.

Fraternal Order of Eagles Aerie 215 has been located in the building since sometime thereafter. The local aerie was established in 1902.

Sources: A Fraternal Order of Eagles presentation provided by Paul Incze; City of Glenwood Springs, Colorado Historically Landmarked and Significant Places document, prepared by Glenwood Springs Historic Preservation Commission, 2015; Colorado Historical Society historic building inventory.

Charles Durand had a dream.

The Glenwood Springs man believed the community needed an opera house, as many of its contemporaries had. The city was young — only a couple of years old as Durand imagined this community center. But such facilities were popping up throughout the West, creating a place for people to gather and to take in the culture they missed from homes back east.

Today, the old Durand opera house remains on Glenwood’s Seventh Street. It’s home to the local Fraternal Order of the Eagles Aerie, and several members share a dream similar to Durand’s — one of restoring the building to its former glory.

SETTLING THE WEST

With Western settlement booming, many people sought to establish community and the sort of culture they’d grown to expect in their hometowns. Actors and other entertainment types took advantage: They developed a circuit, traveled via train, and would perform in these small mining towns. Train travel became possible shortly after Glenwood Springs was established, and Glenwood’s opera house, appropriately, sits across the street from the current-day Amtrak station.

“A new opera house could help to put a town or city on the map and instill respectability and a sense of permanence — precious commodities for hustling towns,” writes Ann Satterthwaite in the 2016 book “Local Glories: Opera Houses on Main Street, Where Art and Culture Meet.”

“New communities on the rough-and-tumble frontier were trying frantically to establish themselves as settled and refined places and also to appear bigger and better than neighboring towns.”

The author, a city planner and historian who says culture is key to community, focused her research on Vermont, Nebraska, Kentucky and Colorado. Thousands of opera houses were built in small towns during the half-century following the Civil War, and Colorado was emblematic of that trend: The Centennial State saw 132 opera houses built in 68 towns between 1860 and 1920. Interest began to fade thereafter: Hollywood movies became the favored entertainment around 1920, cars made it easier to travel to bigger cities for entertainment, and radio brought entertainment directly into the home.

“The opera house also signaled to the world that a town was civilized, even au courant, a place with a sense of permanence and respectability. Not surprisingly, these halls became a source of enormous pride and delight,” Satterthwaite writes.

“Although these symbols of prevailing optimism were often propelled by local businessmen’s pride in their towns, many opera houses were built as a result of pressure from women, who nudged husbands and fathers to provide a local venue for culture.”

CREATING OPERA HOUSES

Indeed, many people settled Glenwood Springs and Colorado’s Western Slope from back east, and opera houses served as a connection to culture back home. Women were outnumbered, two to one, in these mining towns. Saloons were popular gathering spots for men, but were considered inappropriate for ladies. To bridge the gap in Leadville, women launched the Vivian Opera House in a tent theater. It didn’t last long, but Tabor Opera House opened soon after. It remains in operation.

In Aspen, it was a woman’s health that drew the opera house founder west. Jerome B. Wheeler was married to a Macy’s department store heiress, and the couple relocated for the mountain air. Wheeler became involved in silver mining, and established the Wheeler Opera House in 1889.

Durand’s dream of an opera house quickly followed Glenwood Springs’ development. Defiance formed as a tent city in 1883, and incorporated as Glenwood Springs in 1885. By 1888, the facility that would become the Durand Opera House was built. Durand hoped it would follow the traditional model of Western opera houses: retail stores on the first floor, with performance space occupying floors two and three. Rent from retail businesses helped balance the opera houses, which were rarely big money makers.

That didn’t happen, at first. A stove store and a hardware store occupied the one-story building. But within a couple of years, Durand added a stage and auditorium. His dream became reality.

CONNECTION TO COMMUNITY

Opera houses of old connected people to their communities and culture, Satterthwaite writes, and several local Eagles club members hope to restore the building with the same end in mind.

Glenwood Springs Historical Society board president Bob Zanella worked as club manager at the Eagles Lodge. He said the theater was two steps up from Seventh Street, and the maple floor of the Wyrick Room — previously home to the theater stage — was likely installed in the late ‘40s or ‘50s.

The Eagles would want to retain their bar and meeting facility, he said, but he believes restoring the space would be an important draw for downtown.

Business owner Jonathan Gorst joined the Eagles in part to create a committee to preserve the space. Gorst is a theater man himself; the Riviera Supper Club and Piano Bar co-owner spent years as musical director for The Phantom of the Opera tour.

Gorst said a renovation would retain room for the Eagles, but could also provide needed space for other organizations. Some area theater companies could benefit from rehearsal space, and the building could also host events for area nonprofits.

Depending on build out, Gorst estimated a theater within the building could accommodate 350 to 500 seats. That’s larger than other area venues, and therefore the stage could welcome small touring productions. The location, just off the I-70 exit, would also be an asset.

“If you create space, the creativity will come,” Gorst said.

But first, he hopes this summer to create a committee to explore the possibility of restoration. If the effort were to proceed, the group would work to establish partnerships, find private money and explore the possibility of grants.

It’s an appropriate extension of the Fraternal Order of Eagles founding mission, said immediate past president Paul Incze.

Six theater owners founded the organization in 1898, and the local chapter was established in 1902.

“The preservation of the Glenwood Springs Opera House paints a positive light on the Glenwood Springs Eagles and the F.O.E., as a whole, adding tremendous weight to our promise to make our communities better,” Grand Worthy President Jerry L. Sullivan wrote in a letter to the local chapter.

“Any business around it benefits,” Gorst said. “The town has a central point where it can meet, which is an old-fashioned concept that I love.”

The concept is so old-fashioned, in fact, that it dates back to the space’s original intent.

Everything old is new again — and if Gorst, Incze and others find success, that could be the case at 312 Seventh St.


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