Holdrege Opera House

October 2018 Stereoscope;

Holdrege Opera House By Patti Simpson

The history of the Holdrege Opera House is quite interesting. The quest for the finest in entertainment goes back to Holdrege’s very beginnings in 1883. No sooner did the town acquire a voice with the established newspapers, than the need for an opera house or a meeting hall of some sort was being publicly proclaimed. Holdrege businessmen kept pressing for an opera house, and in the year 1888 their plans began to take shape when John Borchert and A. P. Erickson began the project. It wasn’t until the summer of 1889, before actual construction was started on the new building. It was erected by Erickson & Johnson, and furnished by the Holdrege Opera House Co., who leased it for 10 years. Officers of the group were E.D. Einsel, president; H.O. Barber, vice president; F.A. Dean, secretary; L.K. Morris, treasurer; and these four officers along with H.W. Scott were directors. The Opera House was built in an L-shape around the City National Bank building. The bank building was located on the northwest corner of Hayden Street and West Avenue, (now Fourth and West Avenue) with the Opera House building encircling it on the north and west. The Opera House was located on the second and third floors of the “elegant brick and stone block building.” It was touted as the most handsome building in this part of Nebraska, and one in which all Holdrege citizens felt considerable pride. Obviously, both buildings were well constructed, since both are still standing today. The Opera House was 49 x 87 feet in size, the stage was 27 x 49 feet, and there were three dressing rooms. The ceiling was 26 feet high with a dome having a rise of 12 feet. It was heated by two hot air furnaces and lit by eighty incandescent lights. The main entrance was on Hayden Street (Fourth Avenue) and was ten feet in width, while there was a five foot wide stage entrance on West Avenue.The parquet and dress circles had 500 of the latest improved opera chairs, and the balcony had 300. There were ten changes of scenery. An artist from Chicago painted the first set of stage scenery for $1,000 and the dedication performance was given by The Andrews Opera Company. The Andrews Company opened the house on a Friday and Saturday of the week preceding Christmas. They were considered one of the best show troupes on the road, and the opera house was filled to capacity each night. The title of the first show, however, has unfortunately been lost to time. Tickets then were sold at the Holdrege Confectionery, and the advertised prices in 1889 for the show were 10, 20 and 30 cents.The Holdrege Opera House quickly came to be the entertainment center for the entire area, and many a famous actor, actress or entertainer “trod the boards” there. Shakespearean players, dramatic troupes, minstrel shows, opera companies, and entertainers of every sort held forth from the Opera House. Through the 1890s, and well into the early 1900s, the entertainment presented there attracted large audiences from the immediate area as well as from towns up and down the railroads which led into the city. For many of the attractions, extra passenger coaches were added to the trains to accommodate the many theater-goers coming into Holdrege.The local Thespian group, a part of the Royal Highlanders, presented the play, “Hazel Kirke,” which played to full houses for all performances, and the proceeds were used to buy a new piano for the Opera House. In early 1906, the Opera House was advertised as being “overhauled, repaired, painted, papered, and will be open again the night of December Fifth.” The lessees of the Opera House, Messrs. Day and Harman, spent considerable time and money preparing the house for the season’s entertainment, and were entitled to the credit for their efforts. In the first place, the house had been thoroughly renovated and disinfected and thoroughly cleansed. The walls and ceilings were newly papered and painted, and the whole interior had undergone such a change that patrons of the house could hardly tell where they were at. Instead of the old, dingy walls and poor lights, the Opera House was now encoated with paper of a bright, attractive wine color, while the ceilings were papered with a pleasant moiré colored paper with an attractive border. The wood work was all painted a rich silver color, and everything about the house indicated an air of purity and cleanliness. New lights had been added throughout the whole building, both upstairs and down. The Holdrege Opera House was now in a pleasing, inviting, first class condition.In September 1906, the paper reported that the Opera House had now been fully equipped with fire escapes for a quick and safe exit. The new iron steps and landings were made by Hultquist Bros., proprietors of the Holdrege Iron Works, and the work of putting it all in place was done by P.N. Kjar, the plumber and steam fitter, so that it was not necessary to go out of town for either the material or the men to do the work.Many well-known personalities of the day performed on the stage of the Opera House including some political figures such as Chief Justice Hughes and William Jennings Bryan. Mr. Eugene R. Day and Mrs. Clarence E. Harman, both associated with the Holdrege News Company, managed the Opera House in 1907. Several Holdrege High School classes held their graduation services at the Opera House.In addition to live shows, the first regular moving picture came to Holdrege in 1907, and was also held in the north room of the opera house. By 1910, Opera House tickets were still for sale at the Holdrege Confectionery, but now people could also phone in their ticket order. Prices were advertised at 25 cents for general admission, 35 cents for reserve balcony and 50 cents to reserve the lower floor seats. In 1911, a musical comedy called, “The Newlyweds” was playing at the Opera House. The cast had just finished five months in New York, and another four months in Chicago. The price of the tickets reflected the quality of the performance as prices were listed at $1.50, $1.00, 75 cents and 50 cents.Then in 1912, the Opera House received yet another update and facelift. In May 1913, the F. Johnson Co. brought a motion picture exhibit of cotton textile manufacturing. These picture series were advertised as educational and free to the public.With the construction of the Holdrege City Auditorium in 1916, the Opera House lost some of its appeal as the new auditorium seated 2,300 persons and offered a place for entertainment of a more varied nature. Along with dramatic shows and opera companies, everything from basketball tournaments to automobile and style shows could be held there.In 1926, the Holdrege Citizen announced that the old Opera House was undergoing changes. L. C. Severns, who purchased the building about a year earlier, completely remodeled and rebuilt it at a cost of several thousand dollars. The second story was converted into apartments. In the new sub-division of this floor, there were thirty-six rooms, divided into four apartments, and several suites of office rooms, new oak floors were laid and new doors and windows installed. Four sets of plumbing were put in, making the second story modern in every particular way. Mr. Severns informed the Citizen that the entire floor space had already been leased to tenants. From the sidewalk on the east side of the building, leading up to the second floor, a new oak stairway was constructed and oak, panel glass doors were put in at the foot of the stairs.On the third floor, a big transformation was taking place. Here, new stringers were put in, the building rodded and braced; deadening felt placed over the old floor and new quarter sawed oak floor laid, and the entire front remodeled. There was a kitchen, ladies rest room, two toilet rooms, smoking room, and a lodge hall 50 x 80 feet, with a large dome in the center and a heating plant in one corner. When completed, it was believed that it would be the finest lodge hall in Western Nebraska, barring none. New plastered walls and new woodwork graced the doors and windows on this floor in the same theme as the second floor. Mr. Severns informed the paper that this lodge room, in fact the entire third floor, had been leased for a term of five years with an option of ten, by six Holdrege business men and that it would be used as klavern for the Knights and Women of the Ku Klux Klan of Phelps County. Mr. Severns further stated that he will lay a new oak floor in the ground room which was currently occupied by the Hilsabeck Piano Co., and in the spring, he planned to stucco the entire outside walls of the building, making it one of the best and most modern business buildings in our “beautiful and progressive city.”From about 1932 until 1938, the old Opera House’s upstairs hall served as the headquarters for the Holdrege National Guard Company ‘A’. The 80 member Guard would use the double glass door entrance on the east side of the building, and climb the wide, worn staircase to the lodge hall on the third floor. In 1938, the Guard moved their headquarters to the basement of the Holdrege City Auditorium.An undated Holdrege Citizen news article, believed to be from the mid-1940s, was written by Vern Miller, and retold the history of the old Opera House building. In it, Mr. Miller reminisced about the Opera House’s hay day in 1906 and 1907, when in his youth, “it was the burning ambition of every kid in town to have some connection with the Opera House.” He related that there were two schools of thought along this line. Charlie Pitzer, Newt McMillan, “Peck” Wills and others got their thrill from ushering and taking tickets. R.E. (Buck) Moore, Bill Ahlers, the Naslund boys, Earl Parsons and many others, including the writer himself, Vern Miller, went in for scene shifting under the able guidance of Gus Florell, who was stage manager. Mr. Miller related that there may have been greater thrills in his life than the night he rolled up the curtain when Theodore Lorch was playing Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, but it still ranked right up with the Armistice and the first time he smoked in front of his Dad, and his Dad didn’t “whale” on him.Now it’s 2018. Over the last 60 years, the old Opera House building has housed several retail stores on the ground level, and has changed owners more than a few times. I’ve searched for old photos of the inside of the second and third floors of the building without any luck. The second floor apartments have long since been empty, and the third floor lodge hall is also divided into old unused apartments. The east side ground floor is currently occupied by Curves and Viaero, and the old south entrance sits unused and under renovation.On March 24, 2018, one of the current owners, Justin Trompke gave Sandra Slater and myself, Patti Simpson, a tour of the old Opera House. Justin and his wife, Kerry, along with Andrew and Andi Sweeney have formed, “Great ST8 Properties,” and purchased the old building. Originally the group had the intention of remodeling the second and third stories into larger, upper end apartments, or maybe an event hall. Justin told us that this large, old building has roughly 6,300 square feet per floor. Currently, it is divided into 17 old apartments. Since there is no electricity to the second or third stories, Justin said they first exposed the old windows from the inside to get some natural lighting. We entered the building on the east side stairway, climbing the old worn 24 steps to the second floor. The hallway was dark, average in width with a high ceiling. We used our phone’s flashlights to help see where we were going. There were apartment doors on either side of the hallway. Each doorway had an old screen door in front of a regular wood door, just like you would see on an outside doorway. It is believed people would use the screen to keep some privacy while allowing air movement through their apartment on hot summer days. Some of the rooms that shared a common wall with the hallway, also had windows high up on the wall with screens for the same purpose as the screen doors.We wondered through several of the apartments viewing the remains of kitchen and bathroom fixtures, along with some old furniture. The apartments on the east end of the building were lucky to have the big windows. Apartments further back to the west in the building didn’t have windows as they shared a common wall with the neighboring buildings. We worked our way back to the west end of the building through the winding hallway. About a third of the way back, we came across a wide stairway on the north side of the hallway. The stairs had a landing half way up and then turned to go up to the third floor. It is believed that this stairway would have led to the balcony area before the third floor was added. Now the stairs lead to the third floor apartments. Continuing down the second floor hallway a little further, there was another hallway to the left. We went down this hall, and it soon opened up into a larger room with a staircase going down to the south entrance of the building onto Fourth Avenue. This would have been the original front entry to the Opera House. On the south side of this room here on the second floor, there was an outside doorway that was sealed off. Apparently this was the exit to the original balcony that no longer existed. Justin told us that originally the stairs going down to the main south entrance was twice as wide as it is now. At some point in time, it was reduced down to a narrower staircase. In this room there is also an additional stairway with 17 steps going up to the third floor. On the third floor, we saw a similar footprint of the second floor. A couple of the rooms on the west end of this floor had windows on the north side, as the Opera House is taller there than the building next door. On the outside of the west end of the building, there is a metal fire escape that leads down to the alley. As we were walking east down the third floor’s main hall, Justin showed us a small closet area with wooden rungs nailed to the wall that made a make-shift ladder going up into a hole in the ceiling. Justin said he had been up there, and found a round, eight-foot diameter glass ceiling skylight that was encased between the roof’s dome and the third floor’s ceiling. This must have been what the theater patrons of the old Opera House would look up and see before it was converted into apartments. Justin then led us back down the east stairway entrance to the street level. We then walked around to the south entrance to look at the remains of the original wide entrance, now sealed up with a 30 inch metal door and glass blocks. The balcony is long gone, but you can still see where the door used to be.He then took us to the ally entrance where we entered through the back door. Here we could see where they are currently tearing out the old walls and opening up the area to make one large room. There is a freight elevator by the back door that goes down into the basement, but does not go up to the second or third floors. There is a large entry cut out of the thick brick firewall that leads into the small attached brick building to the west that was once some type of a medical office. The building’s character is very interesting, and I could see many opportunities for a retail store in this location.Needless to say, taking on this huge old building is a challenge. It’s going to take a lot of time and money to remodel this old landmark. Even though the Great ST8 Properties have put the building back up for sale, they are continuing to work on the building. They are hoping to get the outside façade updated, new windows installed, and get the south facing retail property remodeled and ready to rent. It’s good to know someone sees potential here, and is trying to give this old Opera House a face lift. It will be a welcomed improvement to downtown Holdrege.—end

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