Built in 1878, the Central City Opera House is the oldest opera house in Colorado. Though it declined along with Central City’s economy in the 1880s, it puttered along as a theater and movie house until owner Peter McFarlane finally closed its doors in 1927. Five years later, the building was revived and restored to host a summer festival put on by the Central City Opera House Association, which is now the fifth-oldest opera company and second-oldest summer opera company in the United States.
Construction and Early Years
Central City was steeped in theater starting in its early years; its first major theater, the Montana, opened in 1862, just two years after the city was founded. The Montana burned in the great fire of 1874, however, along with much of the business district. A new theater, the Belvidere, opened the next year, but it occupied the upper floor of a building and seated only 450. Many considered it inadequate for the city’s needs.
In 1877 the resounding success of an amateur production of The Bohemian Girl provided the necessary spark to organize a movement for a new opera house. The community quickly formed the Gilpin County Opera House Association and raised $12,000 for construction, though costs eventually escalated to $32,000. Ground was broken on June 14, 1877. Designed by Denver architect Robert S. Roeschlaub, the opera house was a large stone Renaissance Revival building with four-foot-thick walls. The interior featured five ceiling paintings depicting classical motifs by the San Francisco artist John C. Massman. The theater could seat more than 700 people.
The Central City Opera House opened on March 4, 1878. It actually had two opening nights, one for music and one for drama, both featuring only local amateur talent. The opera house briefly made Central City the cultural capital of Colorado. It showed everything from vaudeville and minstrel shows to Shakespeare, and also hosted political rallies and civic events.
The opening of Denver’s Tabor Grand Opera House in September 1881 immediately threatened the survival of the Central City Opera House. Touring companies and audiences no longer needed to go to Central City. Originally owned by the city, the Central City Opera House had by this time been acquired by Henry R. Wolcott. Wolcott saw the writing on the wall after the opening of the Tabor Grand and promptly sold the building to Gilpin County for $8,000 for use as a courthouse. Completed in January 1882, the sale angered those locals who had contributed to the opera house’s construction just a few years earlier. They banded together to reorganize the Gilpin County Opera House Association as a corporation with shareholders. They sold stock to raise the necessary $8,000 and bought the building back from the county in December 1882.
The amateur actor Horace M. Hale, who was the largest stockholder in the opera house association, became the manager. The opera house never made much money, but it remained open by luring theatrical productions to Central City after they had played in Denver. Unfortunately, low profits meant much necessary maintenance on the building was deferred. Especially after Hale left Central City for Denver in 1886, the building began to deteriorate. By the 1890s some thought it unsafe for performances. Hale returned to inspect the opera house and hired Peter McFarlane to assume indirect management of the building.
McFarlane was one of the original contractors who had helped build the opera house and wanted to own it himself. He soon started to repair and improve the building at his own expense. He installed electric lights in 1896. In the fall of 1898, he began buying stock in the opera house association. In 1900 he assumed full management of the building, and in 1901 he became majority owner when he bought Hale’s 200 shares for $900. Over the next decade he kept buying opera house association stock when he could, until by 1911 he owned 80 percent.
McFarlane had to undertake a major restoration of the opera house in the early 1900s, repairing a leaky roof, replacing the seating, and installing a new furnace. He believed the opera house could turn a profit, but Central City’s declining economy made that increasingly difficult. McFarlane made at most a few hundred dollars a year from the opera house. He was able to keep it open largely because he had other businesses that supplied his income. During these years the opera house also continued to host local civic, religious, and political meetings.
The opera house’s last regular season of performances ended in May 1908. For the next two years, the building opened only occasionally for community events and traveling shows. It hosted a series of boxing matches in the winter of 1909–10. The next year McFarlane installed movie equipment and opened the opera house as a cinema on July 4, 1910. Except for a four-month closure during the flu epidemic of 1918, the opera house operated continuously as a movie theater for more than fifteen years. Profits were meager or nonexistent. McFarlane showed his final film at the opera house on January 1, 1927, and then closed the building for good.
Restoration and Revival
McFarlane died on May 1, 1929, and left his opera house association stock to his three children. The family initially planned to sell the opera house for use as a warehouse or gymnasium, but McFarlane’s daughter-in-law Ida Kruse McFarlane, a professor of English at the University of Denver, thought it should be restored and returned to its original use. With support from Walter Sinclair, head of the Denver Civic Theater, and Anne Evans, a Denver Civic Theater trustee and daughter of former territorial governor John Evans, Ida McFarlane persuaded her husband and the other two McFarlane children to give the opera house to the University of Denver to host summer opera festivals. This gift was realized in 1931, after the family cleared its title to the building by paying ten years of back taxes (only a few hundred dollars).
Ida McFarlane, Anne Evans, the artist Allen True, and the prominent Denverites Edna and Delos Chappell established the Central City Opera House Association and hoped to stage their first performances in the summer of 1931. Years of neglect had not been kind to the building, however, and it required extensive renovations. The roof leaked, the ceiling was damaged, and the chandelier was missing. The building was full of rats and covered in grime. The restoration took four months and cost $25,000, much of it accomplished with the help of gifts and volunteers.
The opera house was ready in time to hold a festival in the summer of 1932. The opera house association got the prominent Broadway set designer Robert Edmond Jones to design and direct a production Camille, with the silent-movie star Lillian Gish in the title role. Jones liked the town and the theater, and his involvement gave the inaugural Central City Opera Festival national recognition.
Opening night was set for July 16. Jones asked the audience to wear 1870s clothing to evoke the opera house’s early days. The Colorado and Southern Railroad ran a special train from Denver to Black Hawk for the festival, with stagecoaches carrying people the final mile to Central City. Milton Bernet, a vice president of Mountain Bell, helped drum up publicity for the opening. The Denver Post ran a special section, stories went out on national wire services, and the New York Times covered the event. The opening ceremonies, held in front of the restored opera house, were broadcast on NBC radio.
The 1932 Central City Opera Festival was a success despite the treacherous drive from Denver (the main route in was a winding dirt road from Idaho Springs) and the lack of adequate lodging in town. Most performances of Camille sold out, and plenty of other people came to Central City to see the “rediscovered” mining town and take advantage of the city’s decision to allow gambling during the festival. Since then, the opera house has hosted the Central City Opera Festival almost every year.
Central City Opera Festival
During the 1932 festival, the Central City Opera House Association reorganized as a separate entity outside the University of Denver’s umbrella. The university gave the opera house association a ninety-nine-year lease on the building. The association was soon able to secure Jones as producer and director of the festival for a five-year term. Jones’s fame and connections helped draw more stars to Central City, including Walter Huston and his wife, Nan Sunderland, who performed in Othello for the 1934 festival.
The festival shut down from 1942 to 1945 because of World War II. It was revived after the war and quickly expanded under the leadership of Frank Ricketson, who had become head of the opera house association. With multiple productions (including a separate play season starting in 1947), a ball, a fashion show, luncheons, and critical panels, the festival was drawing a large crowd to Central City and making the town into a tourist attraction. It helped that the road from Idaho Springs had finally been paved in the early 1940s. The Ballad of Baby Doe had its world premiere at the opera house during the 1956 festival.
The festival had always relied on donations to make up its operating deficit, but fundraising became increasingly important in the 1950s. The old opera house building required frequent maintenance and repairs, and in the 1960s the festival’s attendance began to suffer a worrisome decline. The eventual result was a financial crisis, leading to a vastly reduced 1971 festival. In 1975 the Central City Opera House Association began to stage operas in Denver as well as Central City in an attempt to attract larger audiences. Nevertheless, debts continued to mount until they totaled $640,000 in February 1982, forcing the cancellation of the festival’s fiftieth anniversary season that summer.
The festival returned in 1983 with a renewed emphasis on staging popular productions from the standard opera repertory. Ticket sales and ticket prices both climbed. By the early 1990s seasons were starting to sell out again. Increased revenues allowed the opera house association to perform major repairs to the building’s foundation in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Further work followed later in the 1990s, including new seating that reduced the building’s capacity to 550.
In the early 1990s Colorado legalized gambling in the mining towns of Central City, Black Hawk, and Cripple Creek. After gambling’s legalization, the opera house association leased one of its properties, the Teller House hotel, to a casino operator. The deal resulted in a $17 million windfall, including a $10 million renovation of the Teller House. Most gamblers ended up going to Black Hawk, however, making gaming in Central City less profitable than expected. As a result, the casino operator relinquished its lease on the Teller House after a decade. The building now houses a restaurant and bar, and hosts festival events such as receptions and recitals. Aside from its lease of the Teller House, the opera house association has also benefited from gaming through the construction of the Central City Parkway in the early 2000s, which made access from Denver easier than ever before.
The opera house association, now known as Central City Opera, continues to maintain the opera house, where it hosts its annual summer opera festival.