It was a palace in the desert, a castle among log cabins, and a beacon for arts and social gatherings.
The Grantsville Opera House, constructed a mere 50 years after the first settlers trickled into the area, was considered at one time to be the best, most ornate building of its kind in the state outside of Salt Lake City. The opera house was a touch of refinement in a place still being tamed.
“It was beautiful, inside and out. There isn’t any other word for it,” said Lois Lawrence, a lifelong Grantsville resident who noted she remembered ornate painting above the stage’s curtain. “It was prettier than the Capitol Theatre. I don’t know if we appreciated it as kids or not but it really was.”
Lawrence was one of 18 people interviewed for the Grantsville Daughters of Utah Pioneers Opera House Project, an oral history project collecting memories of the opera house, which was torn down in 1957. The effort, funded by a grant through the Utah Humanities Council in partnership with Utah State History, aims to preserve first-hand accounts of the building. The entire collection of oral histories about the opera house will be available at the Daughters of Utah Pioneers museum in the basement of the J. Reuben Clark house upon its opening in June.
Preceded by a log cabin “Social Hall,” plans for the opera house began in 1899. Although initially considered too expensive a project to undertake, building began in earnest that summer. Plans for the building were based on the Grand Opera House in Salt Lake, and Danquart Weggeland, a Norwegian-born artist known for his murals in the Salt Lake, St. George, Manti and Logan LDS Temples, was commissioned to paint areas of the opera house.
The first play was performed in 1900, but the building was not dedicated until 1901. It was dedicated by LDS Church President Joseph F. Smith. From the early days until the mid 1910s, church programs, traveling shows, theatrical productions and community balls kept the opera house busy, as did special events such as a memorial upon the death of U.S. President William McKinley in 1901, a fundraiser for the victims of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, the dedication of the Lincoln Highway in 1913 and a farewell for soldiers from Grantsville leaving for World War I.
Plays and performances in the 600-seat theater were sometimes from traveling groups or guest performers, but more often were the product of home-grown talent. Vonda Angel said she remembered dressing up as a flower a couple of times for a variety show. While dressing up and performing was fun, the costumes could cause some mishaps. During one show, several smaller children were dressed up as animals, and had large animal heads that went over their own. As they were running and playing off stage, their costumes got in the way, she said.
“Their heads were so big and they were so little their heads would come off, and then they’d cry,” she said.
Lawrence said her father, George Parkinson, once performed in a play in which he was the villain and was to be shot and then die on stage. As he fell, though, she said, his younger brother cried out.
“He said, ‘They’ve killed George,’” she said. “My father had to get up and say, ‘I’m OK’ and then they could go on.”
The opera house was also known for the dance floor in the basement. Leah Jones said she remembered the excitement and speculation that would often precede the coming of a dance band.
“It was the time of the big bands and the talk was always about who the next band was,” she said. “[The opera house] had the reputation of having the best dance floor in the state. It was a good floor. I don’t know what the wood was but it sure was smooth.”
For a New Year’s dance, said Evelyn Brown, some of the men made confetti for the celebration — but the novelty had an unexpected side effect.
“Some of the brethren in Grantsville gathered up all their old newspaper and took it down to the old grain hash and chopped it for our confetti,” she said. “And then they’d throw it and we’d have a good time and all of the sudden our hair would start itching. It seemed like there was more grain than confetti. That chopped up grain would make you itch. They didn’t clean it first, they just chopped the paper.”
In the mid-1910s, silent films were also shown at the opera house, with musical background and punctuation provided by local pianists. Grantsville did not have a projector, but a traveling projector would show the films to eager audiences. As movies eventually gained sound and color, the shows shown at the opera house also evolved.
“The movies were the most exciting because this was before television,” said Arlene Halladay. “On Monday and Wednesday you could see the same movie and then there was another movie they’d play Friday and Saturday, so if you were good you could see both.”
Tom Callister said he went to the movies weekly, regardless of the feature.
“I’d have to go every week to keep up with the [Superman] serial,” he said.
The weekly movies continued to be shown even after the completion of the Grantsville High School auditorium and gym in 1927, which took many of the community events away from the opera house. Instead of the whole of the Old Folks Sociable being held at the opera house, only the program, for example, would be held there and the meal and other events would be across the street at the high school. In addition to showing films, it was still the go-to place for programs and theatrical productions.
The majesty of the building was not immune to technology and the arrival of the future. Laurie Hurst, who has heavily researched the history of the opera house, said the advent of television, making entertainment readily accessible in the home, made movie ticket sales plummet. That loss in revenue, coupled with the drop in events held at the venue, in turn meant less profit for the opera house and the list of things in need of repair began to grow. The opera house was declared structurally unsound — a claim still debated today — and was torn down in 1957.
Angel said she has had a hard time believing the building was unsafe when they tore it down.
“There wasn’t a thing wrong with it,” she said. “Before they took it down they had just announced that they had just remodeled the balcony and it was safe.”
Hurst said while there were some efforts to preserve the building, they would likely have proved more successful were it not for the general social motion toward modernism.
“Unfortunately, that was sort of the trend of that era,” she said. “It was after World War II and people were tearing down things all across the nation, not just in Grantsville.”
Chick Stromberg said even now, more than 50 years after the opera house was torn down, he still feels the void in the town.
“It was just the center of town, really,” he said. “I wish it was back.”