Historic opera house touts fabulous find

Old stage scenery had been stored for long years in iconic Leadville facility


For a number of Julys, we have been making a trek to a longtime favorite Colorado location — sky-high Leadville. And we have often visited the 1879 Tabor Opera House, concerned about aging walls and stage ... A recent CPR program related really good news — we’ll encourage readers to plan a summer visit in 2021 and perhaps consider taking in a show, and adding some support to keep this historic gem, now owned by the City of Leadville, in condition to entertain us for another century ...

The story that aired recently was about a discovery of hand-painted curtains and stage sets, which will be an added draw when displayed.

In the early years, special artists toured the nation’s operating theatres, painting scenery appropriate for the planned productions — or just decorative pieces that might back soloists or groups of musicians ...

Minnesota-based Wendy Rae Waszut-Barrett, owner of Historic Stage Services LLC, stopped at the opera house while on a family vacation last year, toured the building, including the attic — and has been cataloging the collection, which she has described as “the finest collection of stage scenery in the nation.”

She located about 250 pieces in the building: screens, roll drops, wings and shutters, created by artists such as T. Frank Cox, who traveled the country creating sets and scenery for theaters.

In its heyday, the Tabor drew famous performers, including John Philip Sousa, Oscar Wilde, Buffalo Bill and perhaps, magician Harry Houdini. (It usually offers a summer of programming these days, although the past COVID- summer was a no-go.)

A story about the first opening night reports that the crowd was thinner than expected — because a hanging was scheduled across the street ...

The Leadville Elks Lodge bought the building and added new curtains and set pieces. The group operated it through the start of motion pictures then sold it to local businesswoman Evelyn Furman, who — with her family — operated it until the City of Leadville bought it in 2016.

Set pieces remained piled in the attic — fortunately, the opera house did not suffer a fire or a leaky roof throughout the years — or an overly zealous neatnik!

The set pieces are painted on fabric screens and may suggest a manor, a forest, a village or a wooden cabin and more ...

Cox, a favorite of historian Waszut-Barrett, created a forest scene that has his own face peering through a knothole ...

He would also attend an opening performance and do lightning-fast portraits of audience members — a sort of “performance art.”

Waszut-Barrett, with a crew of volunteers, has hauled down hundreds of pieces that will be displayed as backgrounds for lectures, concerts and operas.

The Tabor Opera House Preservation Foundation is currently working on a $10 million renovation on the exterior of the building, including windows, which are always a touchy challenge for preservationists.

Programming for summer 2021 is not yet listed, but we’ll watch for it.

The mountain theaters make for a wonderful weekend outing and we’ll hope for successful seasons across Colorado — to be announced.

Sonya Ellingboe


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