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Guest Commentary

Iowa opera houses: the next stage


In this day and age, examples of win-win situations are rare. It seems there is always a winner or a loser, or at least someone claiming to be one or the other. So when an idea clicks, and people are happy, it’s worth talking about.                

guest IOHP PellaWhen Sam Knutson attended a concert last year at the What Cheer Opera House, he really didn’t have any idea that it would be the catalyst for a very interesting idea. Knutson, who lives in Iowa City, had played in a band for years. He was also a stage hand at Hancher Auditorium until the flood of 2008 wiped out the theater, so he was familiar with the performing arts on different levels. He also tends to sink his teeth into something when he takes an interest in a subject. When Knutson discovered that Iowa had been home to hundreds of opera houses, he started researching the subject. He checked out postcard collections he found at Sycamore Mall in Iowa City and started collecting examples of Iowa’s opera houses. Then he found a copy of “The Opera Houses of Iowa,” a small but definitive book on the subject.                

“Things just fell into my lap” says Knutson. He realized that another great resource for learning about the history of opera houses were little, old ladies. It seems every small town with an opera house has at least one of them with great stories that help explain the history of the buildings and the folks who kept them going. The more he learned, the more interested he became. Knutson realized that these small venues were really compatible to the type of acoustic folk music he and his friends enjoy playing. And though a large number of Iowa’s opera houses have been lost, there are still many available across rural Iowa. Knutson contacted his friends, Dave Moore, Jordan Sellergren (Milk and Eggs) and Dustin Busch, and they put on their first show at the Clermont Opera House on Sept. 29, 2011. The following night they played at the Coggon Opera House. Since then, there have many more concerts. And Darren and Molly Matthews (Thankful Dirt) as well as John Waite, have joined in the concert series.               

The musicians are all songwriters, so they each bring something unique to the stage. And the venues are just as unique. My wife and I found this out when we visited the Iowa Opera House Project as they performed at the E.E. Warren Opera House in Greenfield. An enthusiastic crowd showed up at the newly-renovated facility. The beautiful building is the result of decades of fundraising, planning and hard work by the residents of Greenfield. I had been in the building only a few years ago when the interior was in serious disrepair. Today the old opera house looks great, and the acoustics are very impressive. The group of talented acoustic musicians brought life back to an opera house that hadn’t seen crowds in 80 years.                

And that is the case with many of the old opera houses across Iowa. Some were used as school gymnasiums early on. In fact, Knutson has a theory that Iowa’s impressive history with high school basketball is a direct result of having access to the large, indoor facilities in winter months. Originally railways provided transportation and revenue to many of the venues. Traveling shows, Vaudeville-style acts and medicine shows riding the circuit kept the opera houses busy for decades. But by the 1930s, the opera house was becoming a thing of the past. In places like Earlham, the old Bilderback Opera House became a roller skating rink before eventually ending up as an automobile parts warehouse. For some property owners, the cost of keeping a leak-free roof intact proved to be prohibitive, so many buildings simply faded away. However it was the movie theater that probably dealt the deathblow to the opera house. Some opera houses were converted to movie theaters, but the fate of others was far worse. In fact, the number of Iowa opera houses has dwindled to 300, a far cry from the 1,500 built before 1920.                

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This is why Sam Knutson’s serendipitous discovery of Iowa’s opera houses has proven to be a win-win deal for everyone involved. Musicians are given a wonderful outlet to share their skills with a larger number of folks. People across Iowa have a chance to listen to talented musicians in intimate settings that were actually designed for exactly that purpose a century ago. And the great, old opera houses are being rediscovered by their community and those traveling to see the performances.             

While nobody is getting wealthy, everyone involved is richer from the experience. And Iowa opera houses, as well as the Iowa Opera House Project, have a very promising future. CV

Kent Carlson is a native Iowa artist interested in the preserving Iowa’s architectural heritage and the common sense of its leaders. His interest in Iowa opera houses began with the purchase and renovation of the Earlham Opera House (also known as the Bilderback Opera House) in 2004. The 1900 opera house is now a family home.

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