Kansas Opera Houses: Actors and Community Events, 1855-1925
by Jane Glotfelty Rhoads
Kansas Opera Houses: Actors and Community Events became a Kansas Notable Book partly because it tells a story that could have been lost and was well worth saving. The story starts before the Civil War and runs through the early 1920s, documenting an amazing variety of entertainment in a state that people often assume had no culture in its frontier days.
If one had to pick one word for this story, that word would be variety. Kansas opera houses ranged from the large and urban to the small and rural. The styles ranged through every kind of European baroque to a Shaker-like minimalism. Some are still standing today and are being used in a variety of ways, including theatre. Some died violently in fires and tornados. Most of them died of old age and were torn down as Kansas changed around them. They had their permanent influence on the churches, schools and community centers that replaced them.
The entertainment they housed varied as much as the buildings. Noisy revues, melodramas, minstrel shows, military pageants, operas and Shakespeare were presented, not in cultural ghettos, but on the same stages. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was presented more frequently than any other play. The opera houses were also used for a variety of community programs and celebrations.
The performers were local students, resident stock companies, and various kinds of traveling theatrical companies. A number of performers who were later nationally known, such as Buster Keaton and Millburn Stone, made appearances on Kansas stages early in their careers.
The author comments at the end of her story: “Bracketed between the Civil War and World War I was a period when the country was agrarian, when the world was often restricted to one’s immediate surroundings. Into this world came traveling theatrical troupes crisscrossing the country on newly laid rails. And into each community traveling peformers brought excitement, entertainment and a hint of the world outside the confines of the community.”
Kansas Opera Houses is a quick and easy read, beautifully illustrated with black and white photographs. The second half of the book contains community-by-community reference information that will be permanently valuable to social historians.
Jane Glotfelty Rhoads and her husband, photographer John Rhoads, deserve the thanks of all Kansans for telling this story and preserving its fascinating slice of Kansas history.