—a misquotation of William Shakespeare (“All the world’s a stage.”) located on the stage arch in Brown’s Opera House, Riceville, Iowa
"These were the days before we had many cars;
and rather than miss a performance, local people
would walk or drive a team of horses not to miss one."
—Dorothy Mills of Sioux City, recalling the Rossie Opera House
What is the grandest building you can imagine? Have you ever seen an opera house? Between the years 1850 and 1915 small and large towns across Iowa built at least one opera house for residents to celebrate together and enjoy various performances. In fact, towns could not really call themselves “civilized” without an opera house.
England had many theaters built during the years of Shakespeare in the late 1500s and early 1600s. Some people objected to plays in theaters. They viewed this type of entertainment as immoral or dangerous for young minds. But music didn’t seem quite so bad. And opera seemed even more respectable.
So the phrase “opera house” became standard in the Midwest during the late 1800s to describe any structure that housed some type of entertainment, whether it was plays or musicals. Although the term “opera” house was used, operas were not the form of entertainment performed in Iowa’s opera houses. But some Iowans disapproved of any entertainment that was performed in the opera houses. Some rigid Protestants declared, “No good education ever occurred in theaters.”
Variety of Styles
Between 1870 and 1920 in Iowa about 1,500 opera houses were built. By 2005 only about 300 remained. Because the term applied to a wide variety of building styles, opera houses were not easily recognized from the outside.
One style was the general utility hall: a plain, rectangular room on the second floor of a main street business. Another style was an opera hall—a large building used only for performances with permanent stages and audience seating. The third style—the opera house—was even larger than the opera hall. It had balconies, and it was very grand with beautiful details and vibrant colors. Most of the structures built in Iowa were the opera house style rather than the more plain and functional halls.
One of the older and well-preserved opera houses that survived is the Steyer’s Opera House built in 1870 in Decorah. It is located on the third floor of a large brick building on Main Street. Now the opera house stands empty, but in its prime it had five chandeliers and could hold an audience of 800 with a curtained stage and several dressing rooms.
Another grand opera house was the DeWitt Opera House built in 1876. This large building had a sizable stage, orchestra pit, dressing rooms, a long balcony above the main floor audience and a lobby as the front entrance. This large theater is called a “stand-alone” opera house because the entire building was devoted to the theater and did not include space for another business.
The Masonic Opera House built in 1893 in What Cheer is a grand opera house that still operates as a theater. Its large three story brick building seats 383 on the main floor and 217 in the horseshoe balcony.
Another—the Majestic Theatre—was built in 1910 in Dubuque and would be renovated almost 100 years later as part of the new Mississippi River project. This beautiful building is six stories high. The interior has gold leaf on the walls—worth over $10,000. The audience area has three different balconies. The stage floor has five trap doors. The architect for the building came from Chicago to design the building. The style is known as “Renaissance revival.”
Community Gathering Spots
Opera houses in Iowa varied greatly—from one to six stories tall, brick or wooden frame construction, and seating from 100 to 1,300. Opera houses were mainly a space for community activity.
Sometimes traveling theater groups passed through town. The three most popular in Iowa in the 1800s were the G.D. Sweet Famous Players, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Trousdale Family Players.
Opera houses were also used for a variety of social activities from parties to temperance meetings to weddings to speech contests to magic shows. Even sports such as roller skating, basketball and wrestling took place on the opera house stage.
The End of the Opera Houses
The opera house—once a majestic cultural center of Iowa’s towns and cities—gradually was replaced by other types of entertainment. People turned to the radio, movies and television. But these new types of entertainment were mass-produced in distant cities.
Fred Oney Sweet recalled in 1940 the arrival of performers to the Hampton Opera House. “Our romantic hero and heroines walked our streets, breathed our air, ate our food. They were not strips of celluloid packaged tightly in tin boxes shipped to us from across the continent.”
Today older residents still remember Iowa’s opera houses—places of music and magic. Even the tiniest of towns boasted an opera house where for an hour or two local residents were entertained by glamorous stars of the opera circuit.
- Glenn, George D. and Richard L. Poole. The Opera House of Iowa. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1993.