restricted access 8. Piper’s Opera House and the Archaeology of Theater
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96 8. Piper’s Opera House and the Archaeology of Theater On July 2, 1863, as over 170,000 Americans fought in the fields of Gettysburg , Thomas Maguire, San Francisco’s famed theater impresario, opened an opera house in Virginia City. The Comstock event attracted hundreds of patrons, not the least of whom was Mark Twain, who rushed back from California to attend the first night. In 1867 John Piper purchased the auditorium; he gave it his name and made it even greater than Maguire could imagine. The Comstock venue was a state-ofthe -art facility, and it established an institution that would attract the world’s best acts over the following decades. As indicated previously the excavation of Piper’s Old Corner Bar yielded a treasure trove of roughly one hundred thousand artifacts, offering a wide range of opportunities for insight into the saloon of the Wild West. John Piper’s property, however, was much more than a saloon . Indeed, his opera house was one of the more significant theaters in the West as well as the community’s civic and cultural center. Touring acts needed a midpoint to perform when traveling between Sacramento and Salt Lake City, and Virginia City was an obvious choice. Piper’s facility became well known to the nation’s actors and musicians and to an international array of entertainers as well as advocates for various causes. The hall echoed with orations advocating everything from spiritualism and Irish independence to the nineteenth-century’s free-love movement. Frank Mayo (1839–96), John Philip Sousa (1854–1932), and two of the Booth brothers from the famed theatrical family each appeared on one of the succession of Piper’s stages. No doubt John Wilkes Booth would have also performed there, but the diversion of a presidential assassination ended his career as well as his life. As if that were not enough, David Belasco (1853–1931) cut his theatrical eye teeth at Piper’s theater during the 1870s. Belasco, who became known as the “Bishop of Broadway,” shaped American theater for nearly five decades and has to his credit the stage versions of Madame Butterfly and The Girl of the Golden West.1 97 Piper’s Opera House and the Archaeology of Theater More than a century after Piper founded his business, the material cultural beneath and inside his opera house provides the means to understand the institution in a way that transcends the written record. Hardesty’s excavations of Maguire’s original property in 2008 and 2009 augments a story that is largely out of reach for historians. After the first hall that Maguire built on D Street burned during the fire of 1875, Piper moved the institution two blocks uphill to B Street. Piper perched the auditorium above and behind the business block he had erected in 1863. The original structure still served as home to his Old Corner Bar. At various times one of his brothers operated another saloon at the north end of the building. Upstairs there were offices, and occasionally Piper transformed space into an apartment. He opened his new theater in 1877, but in 1883 another fire destroyed the auditorium. Once again the original business block proved indestructible. Piper rebuilt his opera house a second time, but as mentioned in chapter 5, his saloon remained closed. The new theater reopened in 1885, and it continues as a vibrant cultural center to this day.2 28. Piper’s Opera House, ca. 1930, was in need of repair, but it still exhibited the strength of its 1863 brick facade and the imposing size of its 1885 auditorium to the rear. Courtesy of the Comstock Historic District Commission. 98 Piper’s Opera House and the Archaeology of Theater In addition to the artifacts from the saloon described previously, a great deal survives of theater-related material for consideration. First of all, there is the building itself. The opera house boasts one of the nation ’s best examples of nineteenth-century theater mechanisms, surviving intact and in usable condition. Theater posters, sets, costumes, and haunting photographs are also part of the inventory. The building itself is an object with many facets that can reveal much about life in the nineteenth century. The oldest component of the theater, the front business block, dates to a massive rebuilding effort after fire swept along B Street in July 1863. The neighborhood resurrected quickly since the mines were in a bonanza at the time, extracting incredible...


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Subject Headings

  • Virginia City (Nev.) -- History.
  • Virginia City (Nev.) -- Social life and customs.
  • Virginia City (Nev.) -- Antiquities.
  • Frontier and pioneer life -- Nevada -- Virginia City.
  • Silver mines and mining -- Nevada -- Virginia City -- History.
  • Gold mines and mining -- Nevada -- Virginia City -- History.
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