Remembering entertainment of yesteryear

Chad Frey
The Ragsdale Opera House, and the enterainers who performed there, will be part of a presentation called "The Age of Stage in Newton & Wichita" at 7 p.m. Oct. 20.

At one time entertainers and musical performers would travel across the nation in private rail cars, performing in venues large and small.

Some of those venues were in Newton and Wichita — places like the now gone Ragsdale Opera House in downtown Newton.

That history will be the focus of “The Age of Stage in Newton & Wichita,” an online event hosted by the Harvey County Historical Society at 7 p.m. Oct. 20.

It is a history that Sam Jack of the Newton Public Library found quite colorful when researching Wichita.

“The first theater that was documented in Wichita was owned by a drag queen — a female impersonator who also juggled, clog danced and played the banjo,” Jack said.

He, along with Harvey County Historical Museum curator Kris Schmucker, will be talking about the history — and showing photographs of — the performers who took to the stage in the golden age of live theater, the 1880s through the 1910s.

Such stage stars as Sarah Bernhardt, Edwin Booth and Lotta Crabtree walked the boards of such theaters as the Ragsdale Opera House in Newton and the Crawford and Toler opera houses in Wichita.

Some traveled in the lap of luxury in their day.

“It is interesting how wealthy some of these performers were,“ Jack said.

Adelaide Moore, made a splash by arriving in Wichita in 1886 in a custom-built railroad car, Jack said the car reportedly cost $56,000, or $1.5 million in today's dollars, and the public was invited to walk through it and marvel at the wealth on display.

Schmucker will concentrate on the Ragsdale Opera House, a facility that was downtown in Newton and burned twice. During its tenure it host varied forms of entertainment.

“From high school graduations and Tom Thumb weddings to traveling shows ’What’s Playing at the Ragsdale Tonight?’ highlights this history of this Newton landmark,” Schmucker wrote.

She will talk about the history of the venue.

It took 18 months to construct the Ragsdale Opera House beginning, in May 1884. The three-story structure covered three lots at 701 Main. Although the exterior had brick and stone, the interior was entirely wooden.

It burned to the ground Jan. 1, 1915.

“I’m mainly using photos of the building, some of the shows I know took place there and about the fire that destroyed it,” Schmucker said.

To sign up for this free online program, visit and enter your name and email address. Registrants will receive an email with a link to use to join the Zoom webinar. The program will also be streamed live on the Newton Public Library Facebook page.