Horses in high places
July 23, 2009
Even before the coasts were connected by railroads, entertainers from the East found work in Western mining cities. Miners and get-rich-quick camp followers willingly parted with their wages and gold dust in exchange for excellent meals or an evening performance.
The most comprehensive account of mining-town entertainment can be found in “Silver Theatre: Amusements of Nevada’s Mining Frontier 1850 to 1864,” by Margaret Watson. Focusing mostly on the towns of Nevada’s Comstock Lode, the author chronicles the openings of theaters and the acting companies that played them.
Circus acts, lecturers, politicians, world travelers, musicians, minstrels and actors shipped around Cape Horn to San Francisco seeking a share of the wealth that was being dug from the ground. Residents of isolated mining towns poured out to attend almost any diversion. Comedies were the most popular. Shakespeare, when presented by competent actors, was equally well-received. One of the most popular shows to visit Virginia City in the 1860s, Watson says, was a “gigantic panorama of the Present [Civil ]War; with startling scenic and dramatic effects with over 1,000 views of the gigantic rebellion, together with a grand moving diorama of the great naval combat between the iron-clad monitors.”
Typical theaters of the day were two-story buildings with saloons on the bottom floor and performance halls above. Patrons entered and exited past the bar, boosting income for the owners. Admission ranged from 25 cents to a $1.50, comparable to ticket prices today at about a half-day’s wages. Larger “opera houses” like Aspen’s Wheeler were built in the larger mining cities and many still stand today.
Aspen did not emerge as a major mining city until the mid-1880s, but it benefited from easy access by train. By then, promoters like Peter McCourt, manager of the Tabor Grand Opera House in Denver, booked acts for multiple cities. Entertainers could be guaranteed bookings in 20 or more towns along the “Silver Circuit.”
Most of the larger cities were served by more than one theater/hall. Aspen had the Wheeler (the largest), plus the Armory Hall, Rink Opera House and the Tivoli Theater. A selection of prize fights, circus acts, plays, musical concerts, dancing balls, political speeches, lectures and even animal acts were available to patrons.
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The following offerings available to Aspenites in 1894 suggests that anyone with a dollar in his/her pocket could have a grand evening: A speech by Joseph Murray (the Irish-American orator and founder of Colorado’s Knights of Labor), following after 800 nights in New York a performance of “Charley’s Aunt,” Katie Emmett staring in “Killarney” with realistic scenes of Ireland, a production of “Othello,” Rentfrow’s Musical Comedy Company, and the famous whistling soloist Dutton Wansor.
In one week, Aspenites could enjoy a lecture by Father Malone, a humorous lecture by Robert Mointiro titled Fun on the Farm, a grand ball put on by the Woodmen of the World, plus the following plays: The Vagabond, My Lord in Livery, and Charley’s Aunt.
The Tribune newspaper booked the Tivoli Theater for the evening of the 1896 presidential election. They ran a wire from their office to the theater to project election results on a screen, ” realizing the fact that the ladies of Aspen are fully as deeply interested as the sterner sex in the results of Tuesday’s balloting, and realizing that also no arrangements have been made especially for their accommodation while receiving election returns the management of The Tribune has concluded to go to some trouble and expense in the effort to supply the deficiency.”
My favorite announcement from 1894 was that of a comedy titled The County Fair to play at the Wheeler. The ad enticed, “Among the many features to be given in this famous comedy is a genuine horse race, which is, beyond all cavil, the greatest effect ever seen on the stage.” I am sure the purposely vague leader conjures up the image of real horses on the stage.
Horse acts appeared commonly in western theaters, especially trick riding. There was a large door half way up the outside wall behind the Wheeler stage on the alley side of the building. I know from experience that very large objects could be hoisted to stage level, even something as large and heavy as a horse.
Declining population alone did not account for Aspen’s eventually limited roster of live entertainment. As in other western cities, motion pictures vastly outsold other choices.