The Muse above the Mineshafts
As spacious and romantic as any of the legends of the old West was its tradition of the theater. Often muse came to the frontier hard upon the heels of the pioneers. Invariably it arrive there by the time crystal chandeliers and the presence of Wells Fargo & Co. indicated that the diggings were a proven camp and that things generally were here to stay. In an age when the Saratoga trunk and traveler’s great cloak were as much the offstage properties of actors as dueling swords, Hamlet suits and other romantic fakements were behind the footlights, the American theater was an itinerant thing. It was not confined to New York, Boston and perhaps, greatly daring, Chicago as it is today. It rolled grandly up and down the continent aboard dusty Pullmans, stage coaches and river steamers, and billposters announcing the presence of Lola Montez and Lotta Crabtree were as familiar to Pickhandle Gulch and Okay Crossing as they were to Tremont Street or lower Broadway.
The West loved is opera houses and the players who, emerging from behind the red and gold velvet curtains of Victorian richness, brought Elsinore, Paris at midnight or the seacoast of Bohemia to the gold-rich, romance-hungry camps of Colorado, California and Nevada. Of all the old time playhouses whose boards knew the feet of Adah Isaacs Menken and Salvini the Younger, few survive today. Lost, at least to the Thespian mystery, are Haw Tabor’s florid opera houses in Denver and snowy Leadville. Vanished from San Francisco are the Tivoli and the Grand Opera House, William Ralston’s classic Old California Theater with the Free Public Library on its upper floors and the beautiful playhouse that was part of Lucky Baldwin’s Hotel at Powell and Market. Gone from a score of Hangtowns, Eurekas and Bear Hills are the gaudy opera houses that once inflamed the civic bosom with pride and were regarded by jealous pastors as the veritable abode of Satin in their midst.
Piper’s as it exists today is Virginia City’s third opera house and the second built and managed by John Piper whose own Victorian mansion, built after the Great Fire of 1875, stands to this day at the southwest corner of A and Union Streets kitty‑corner to the opera’s stage door. Virginia’s first theater was Maguire’s New Opera House which opened in 1863 about the time the Washoe found itself securely enough established to go in for urban sophistication in a big way. It was a splendid thing, this first theater perched precariously and, as it turned out, briefly on the precipitous slope of Sun Mountain. There were, for one thing, carpets on the floor of aisles and gangways in contrast to the sawdust which had covered the boards of Virginia’s places of public congregation to date. There was a magnificent curtain, its scene painted by a real art artist from Italy at reputedly fabulous expense, but actually in settlement of an overdue board bill at Jacob Wimmer’s Virginia Hotel, depicting sunset at Lake Tahoe. A tasteful and cultivated scene in contrast to those in vogue behind the bars in C Street!
On opening night, when “Money” was billed for Virginia’s first theatrical presentation, all the aristocracy of the Comstock turned out in its most stylish attire. The mine superintendents, the nabobs of Washoe, were present with their ladies on their arms and diamonds as big as robin’s eggs in their starched shirt bosoms. The gamblers were there, conspicuously without ladies, but with diamonds somewhat bigger than those of the nabobs as compensation. Sandy Bowers and Eilley Orrum were not present at all. They were doing the Grand Tour of Europe and making life a trial for Charles Francis Adams, the American Ambassador to the Court of St. James, trying to get to have tea with Queen Victoria. Everyone agreed that, had Sandy been there, his diamonds would have been bigger than anyone’s.
It was just after the orchestra had finished playing an overture and just before the house lights were dimmed that the shooting started. In an injudicious moment the management had seated two mortal enemies, Jack McNab and one Howard, in stage boxes on opposite sides of the auditorium but on the same level. Drawing a “Navy” revolver from under the tails of his broadcloth evening coat, McNab sighted across the plush mounted edge of his box and began firing. The elegantly printed program, composed and run in the job department of the Territorial Enterprise, leapt from Howard’s suddenly palsied fingers. Another slug tore past his ear and shattered the crystals of an expensive wall fixture for lighting. Ladies screamed prettily. Gentlemen in other parts of the house arrived on the run from the bar, the billiard room and roulette parlor with an assortment of weapons, six‑guns, champagne bottles and billiard cues. By the time MacNab’s gun was empty and Howard, who it transpired was unarmed, was in full flight from the scene. Tranquility, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, was restored and the curtain, delayed a few minutes only, went up on “Money” with Walter Leman and Julie Dean Hayne in the leading roles.
But Maguire’s was not the only place of theatrical entertainment in Virginia City. Tent shows still flourished during the more clement months of the year and variety and the classics vied with each other for the patronage of the miner, madame and millionaire. At one time there were five Shakespearean companies performing while six other troupes of mummers were presenting vaudeville, Tom shows, dog and pony acts and raree shows.
Washoe’s taste in the theater was altogether catholic. It mattered little to customers whether the show at Maguire’s was a performance of “Macbeth,” a dogfight between fierce mastiffs, a brass band concert or “The Montgomery Queen’s Great Show With the Only Female Somersault Rider in the World.”
But among the more reputable players who came to Virginia City, riding up the Geiger Grade in the coaches of Wells Fargo & Co., and later aboard the cars of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad, were Adah Isaacs Menken, Edwin Booth, John McCullough, Laurence Barrett, Clara Morris and Thomas Keene. “The Menken” was a prime favorite of the miners because of her robust performance of “Mazeppa,” a nineteenth century melodrama of Gothic proportions at the climax of which the heroine was carried off stage bound and approximately naked on the back of a coal black stallion. Wells Fargo provided a special express service to transport Menken’s trained equine performers throughout the West. Joe Jefferson was recalled again and again to Virginia City to play his classic “Rip Van Winkle,” and “Davy Crockett” and “The Streets of New York” were tremendous attractions when billed with Frank Mayo in their leading roles. On one occasion, as a token of esteem, the miners presented Menken with a bar of silver bullion worth $2,000. Wells Fargo’s strongest stage had to be specially braced to ferry it down to the railroad at Reno!
In 1875 Maguire sold the Opera House to John Piper and within a year the conflagration of 1875 had wiped out his investment. With what had been minted gold, found after the ashes had cooled in a twisted mass of metal in the office safe, Piper at once rebuilt and speedily recouped his lost fortune. Again in 1883 fire destroyed the section of town where the Opera was located and again the indomitable Piper rebuilt in B Street where his theater stands to this day. David Belasco was at one time stage manager in these historic premises before moving on to greater things in New York and London.
Piper’s hasn’t heard a callboy going the rounds of its dressing rooms calling for curtain in many decades now, and Madame Helena Modjeska, General Tom Thumb and a young Otis Skinner are only wistful memories of departed grandeur. But the stage boxes sacred on opening nights to John Mackay and Adolph Sutro are still maintained by the management for visitors to see, tangible evidence of Virginia City’s great days when gold pieces fell on the stage in a glittering shower for Adelina Patti and when the roars of approval of John Piper’s uninhibited audiences wakened the midnight echoes in sleeping Six Mile Canyon. The show still goes on in the mind’s eye of another generation.