Theater was always a popular entertainment in Cheyenne, however the venues that existed prior to 1881 were tacky, to say the least. One Denver newspaper disdainfully reported that one theater was located above a livery stable, so the sound of braying mules often disturbed the performances. So even though Cheyenne was located on a major railroad, the nicer venues remained too small to draw the top-tier performers that passed by on the rails.
Cheyenne had no shortage of wealthy, sophisticated citizens who were used to attending legitimate theater, concerts and opera while visiting the East on business or family matters. A group of these civic-minded businessmen got together and agreed to raise $15,000 among themselves, with none of their contributions to exceed $1,000. The goal was quickly reached, and a local contractor and a local architect were engaged. F.E. Warren sold the group a lot at the corner of Seventeenth and Hill, a block north of the InterOcean Hotel. Brick was quarried locally and the decorative woodwork was done by local craftsmen. It was to be a true community project and it eventually cost $50,000 to build.
An opera house lent a certain civilized atmosphere and sense of stability to a community which helped to spur other local construction projects do at the time the opera house was constructed Cheyenne experienced a construction boom. The new Presbyterian Church went up, as did numerous new residences and brick business buildings.
An opera house, in a city with a population of 4,000, was not expected to generate nightly income, so a multi-use facility was planned. Sixty percent of the building was designated for the opera house and the remaining forty percent, facing Seventeenth Street, would house the Territorial Library and a commercial rental on the first floor. The second floor provided a theater balcony as well as a library hall, banquet hall and kitchen. The performance hall itself would accommodate 860 – 1,000 people.
Upon completion, a gala inaugural ball and banquet were held to celebrate the opening. Tickets were ten dollars and the very finest of Cheyenne’s society attended. The Cheyenne Leader reported that Mrs. F.E. Warren wore white silk, and oriental cashmere, trimmed with Spanish lace, and diamond ornaments. Dance music was provided by the Third Cavalry string orchestra and carriages began arriving at nine. The dancing continued until midnight after which everyone went into the banquet hall for a “magnificent supper.” Dancing continued afterward.
On May 25, 1882 the first opera came to town. Those attending came, not only from Cheyenne, but from Denver, Laramie and other surrounding communities. The Leader again gushed over the elegance of those who attended, as well as the 52-light chandelier with a gas reflector above. Red silk plush upholstery, carved woodwork and stained glass cathedral windows graced the establishment. A grand stairway of ash and black walnut lead to the balcony.
As if this were not elegant enough, the stage had Corinthian-Doric columns and the drop curtain portrayed Roman chariot races (a natural for Cheyenne, right?). It had every accoutrement a theatre required and the acoustics were said to be excellent.
The opera house opened up new opportunities for Cheyenne’s population to see the biggest stars of the day — Edwin Booth, Sarah Bernhardt, and Lillie Langtry among them. Minstrel shows were always popular and vaudeville came into vogue but in ten years Cheyenne’s population had tripled and the building was getting tattered around the edges. F.E. Warren, who had bought up the majority of the stock in the building, sold it to the Careys who had plans for an expensive remodel. As it turned out, however, commercial and office space was then at a premium the Careys chose not to invest in the remodel. As time went on less prominent people began to attend the events which then included commencements, local theatre and concerts.
The opera house served as a cultural center for Cheyenne for twenty years before the location was finally converted to commercial use.
Photo from Wyoming Tales and Trails.