WHITEWATER — Kansas Humanites Council speaker Jane Rhoads presented "Opera House Culture on the Kansas Frontier" on Monday evening at Remington High School for a meeting of the Frederic Remington Area Historical Society.
Rhoads, the author of 2009 Notable Kansas Book "Kansas Opera Houses, Actors, and Community Events 1855–1925," shared how she traveled to 426 Kansas towns in search of the structures that were still standing.
"Any kind of community celebration was held in the local opera house," Rhoads said.
Opera houses were popular in the time between the Civil War and WWI, as settlers from the East brought their desires for culture with them westward.
"From my research, I found references to opera houses in 479 Kansas towns," Rhoads said.
Opera house visitors typically had to climb at least one flight of stairs to gain entry.
"The vast majority of Kansas opera houses were on the second floor, above stores," Rhoads said.
Ragsdale Opera House was built in Newton in 1885.
"Across the first floor, you had businesses," Rhoads said. "And then, across the front of the second and third floor, you had doctor's offices; lawyer's offices, and then the opera house was in the back part of the building on the second and third floors."
Newton's post office occupied a space in the building for a time, and The Evening Kansan-Republican was published from rooms along West Broadway Street in the late 1800s until 1903.
Rhoads noted Ragsdale Opera House had six boxes — three on either side — along with two balconies, and used gas for its lighting.
Advertisements in The Evening Kansan-Republican trumpeted to readers that plays, minstrel shows, comedians, musicians and novelty acts were brought into the Ragsdale Opera House.
Some of the performers that were seen on Kansas opera houses stages included Milburn Stone, Buster Keaton and Harry Houdini.
Visiting theatrical troupes would travel to town by train and transport their trunks over to the opera house to set up for their performance — sometimes giving the same show in different towns for several days in a row.
Cities with more rail lines received a larger number of traveling shows, bringing melodramas, opera and Shakespeare.
"Emporia had several rail lines that ran through it and in 31 years – 1882 to 1913 — 590 different acting companies appeared in Emporia," Rhoads said.
Other events that involved a large portion of the town's residents were held in opera houses.
"Since the opera house was the largest gathering place in town, once in a while, for a prominent person, their funeral would be in the opera house," Rhoads said. "Or, if it was a particularly interesting court trial, that would be in the opera house."
While some opera houses were elaborately decorated and housed large stages, some held simple, small stages.
"In smaller opera houses, the seating was portable so that the space could be used for a variety of things," Rhoads said.
Church dinners and dances were held in opera houses.
"In addition to graduation, school programs were another really popular thing in the opera house," Rhoads said. "...The death knell for opera houses was when the high school built an auditorium, because then they didn't need the opera house for commencements."
Ragsdale Opera House burned down on Jan. 1, 1915.
"At least 70 opera houses in Kansas burned down," Rhoads said. "This is not surprising, considering they were lit by kerosene, by gas, by early electricity and you didn't have good fire departments."
A few opera houses succumbed to tornadic winds, including the Twilight Theater in Greensburg, which was built in 1915 and collapsed in the 2007 tornados.
"The vast majority of opera houses simply fell into disuse and were torn down, or they were converted into other uses," Rhoads said.
Only a few dozen opera houses are left in Kansas, though several have been renovated or are in the process of renovation.
"It wasn't the space that made the opera house important, it was its role as a community gathering place," Rhoads said.
For more information about the Frederic Remington Area Historical Society and its programs, visit http://remingtonhistoricalsocietyks.org/