Fires are one of the biggest threats to the old mining towns of the West. Most of the buildings were made of clapboard and very easily caught fire from wood burning stoves or an errant cigar left unattended. One such cigar may have cost a man a whole building.
During our Highway 50 Loneliest Road in America Challenge, we found out that the Eureka Opera House in Eureka, Nevada was a recently renovated cousin to the Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City, Nevada. We decided to visit. The road up to Virginia City was a bit windy and hilly. I gave Lex directions and It didn’t take long for him to find the impressive structure. We loved how beautiful the mustard colored opera house looked with the red, white and blue banners hanging from the front arches. We didn’t see anyone inside but the door was open and we stepped right in.
The current Piper’s Opera House is the third building to have survived from fires. The first Opera House was purchased in 1867 when it was known as Maguire’s Opera House by John Piper, a German Immigrant, entrepreneur and politician. John Piper arrived in Virginia City as part of the Comstock Lode rush. He was Mayor of Virginia City in 1867 and also represented Storey County in the Nevada Senate in 1874. Piper’s Opera House was one of a number of venues that he managed for theatrical performances.
The first Piper’s Opera House (formerly Maguire’s Opera House) was built in 1863 was burned down in the Great Fire of 1875. Piper was able to raise funds to rebuild it from promoting shows at his other venues. The second Opera House burned down in 1883 when John Piper allegedly left a cigar unattended in his upstairs apartment. The current house was built in 1885 and has stood since. I guess the third time was the charm!
It has been used for silent films, community rentals and in 1920, was condemned. It was opened again in 1940 as a museum after NBC had used it to promote the film, Virginia City starring Errol Flynn. From the 1960’s to the 1980’s the house was used for concerts, staged plays and special events. By 1997, the Opera House was in need of structural renovations and was sold to Piper’s Opera House Programs, Inc. They with Storey County Commissioners have restored the opera house to its current condition where once again, it hosts theatrical presentations, concerts and even weddings.
We had no idea how many famous people had visited Virginia City and how many had performed at the Opera House. Lilli Langtry, Al Jolson, John Phillip Sousa, Maude Adams, Mark Twain (lectured at the first Opera House but Hal Holbrook performed as Mark Twain a century later at the current one), and many others. A photo of Oscar Wilde with accompanying text noted that he visited once and enjoyed drinking whiskey with the miners.
Do you recognize any of these performers?
The upstairs room was lovingly restored and staged to look like a turn of the century dressing room. Many photos and playbills lined the hallway. From one of the bills, Lex found that Dan HIcks and his Hot Hicks played here. Lex is a big fan of The Charlatans whom Dan was a member and had performed regularly at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City in the 1960’s.
Walking onto the main stage was a lot of fun . It was like taking a trip back in time to the 1800’s. There was an old Victorian sofa on stage and the side box seats were beautifully restored with red velvet curtains hanging above. I couldn’t resist getting up on the stage to goof around. So much for the actor in me!
There were artifacts and many prints and paintings of the performers who had crossed the stage in this magnificent house. It was so wonderful to see and I so grateful that it still stands.
The Gladstone Sisters? Hmm…