Truths and myths about Piper’s Opera House

Piper's Opera House is a historical landmark in Virginia City, Nev.

Piper’s Opera House is a famous historical landmark in Virginia City, Nev.

Some time ago, I appeared at a book signing at the Nevada Historical Society in Reno to feature my latest book, Chronicles of the Comstock. The other author featured at the event was Nevada historian and Esmeralda County District Attorney, Patty Cafferata. She was featuring one of her latest creations, The Heyday of Piper’s Opera House. We exchanged signed copies of our books and I eagerly read every page of her very well-researched work with interest.

In her book, Cafferata debunked many myths and misconceptions about Piper’s Opera House and its several reincarnations in Virginia City. As often happens with historical writing, folklore, oral history and the regurgitation of stories written by misinformed writers, sometimes become accepted as fact. After reading Patty’s book, I find I have inadvertently written articles about Piper’s Opera House that contained some of these mythical stories. I would be more concerned about this except I remember that Mark Twain knew that one should never let the truth stand in the way of a good story. Not only that, but this article corrects every untruth I ever may have said about Piper’s Opera House.

In a previous article in the Comstock Chronicle, a weekly newspaper serving Virginia City and outlying areas, I had repeated the claim by other authors that Adelina Patti and Madame Modjeska had performed at Piper’s. According to the research done by Patty Cafferata, there is no documentation to support the claim that either of these performers ever played at Piper’s.

Piper’s Opera House, long accepted as the cultural center of Virginia City, has undergone a complex evolution since its beginning in February of 1867. This was the year John Piper acquired ownership of the four-year-old Maguire’s Opera House at the southeast corner of D and Union Streets. The former owner had become bogged down in lawsuits and judgement debts. Piper submitted the lowest bid at a public auction to acquire the property. He immediately renamed the establishment Piper’s Opera House.

When John Piper purchased the theater, he set about to refurbish the place and book the finest entertainment that could be had in the Old West. Maguire’s had become well known as the entertainment and cultural center of town, and the improvements made by Piper enhanced this image. Unfortunately, on October 26, 1875, the Great Fire swept through Virginia City and burned Piper’s Opera House to the ground. This spelled the end of the first Piper’s Opera House.

Meanwhile, John Piper had already opened a saloon at the northwest corner of B and Union Streets. After the Great Fire when the first opera house burned down, he sought to find property on C street, but decided to build his new opera house on the lot occupied by his saloon just across from the back entrance of the International Hotel. A truly grand structure, the second Piper’s Opera House was completed and opened for business on January 28, 1878. Of the three establishments to bear this name, this one was the most fashionable and elaborate of all. It occupied the same lot as the building known today as Piper’s Opera House.

Little expense was spared in the construction and furnishing of the second establishment. It featured architectural amenities that were “state-of-the-art” for the time. Over 1,000 people could be seated in the mammoth auditorium. Sets of scenery, curtains and stage equipment were brought in from San Francisco. There was an outside balcony and the walls were decorated with paneling and painted frescos.

The expense of constructing and furnishing this grand palace of entertainment left John Piper in financial distress and in July of 1878, he declared bankruptcy. Despite this setback, Piper was able to reorganize and recover from his financial woes. The Comstock was already entering the inevitable decline of a frontier mining camp and the decreased population could not support an entertainment center of such opulence as it once did. John Mackay, one of the Big Four mining kings of the Comstock Era came to the rescue of Piper’s Opera House. John Mackay believed Virginia City should have a place such as Piper’s to be the cultural center of town. He never expected repayment for the financial assistance he provided.

On the morning of March 12, 1883, following a community dance at the ballroom, smoke was seen coming from the opera house. John Piper was rescued from his apartment inside but the magnificent second Piper’s Opera House burned to the ground. Fortunately, John Piper not only escaped unharmed, but since most money in those days was in coin, he recovered enough gold and silver coins from the charred safe to begin construction of the third (and present) Piper’s Opera House.

The opera house we see in Virginia City today was completed and opened on March 6, 1885. Virginia City and the Comstock were well into decline at that time. Unlike the opulent construction that went into the second Piper’s, the third reincarnation was built as cheaply as possible. The local residents still wanted the luxury of having a theater and community center, so they contributed considerable financing to help John Piper to rebuild the third and final Piper’s Opera House.

The third opera house had no fixed seating. Instead, it had chairs and benches that could be moved to provide room on the flat floor for dances and other community events. Since the floor was flat, the designers elevated the back of the stage so the performances could be more easily seen. The population and use of the structure continued to decline in the 1880’s. In 1890, a heavy snow storm caused part of the roof to collapse. John Piper worked tirelessly for 10 days to have the repairs completed in time for a scheduled play.

John Piper passed away in 1897. He would be pleased to know that 125 years after completion of the third Piper’s Opera House, the place is still being used for community events, weddings, meetings and enhancement of tourism. Some of the things claimed to have happened at Piper’s Opera House clearly did not happen in this building, but may have happened in the earlier places of the same name.

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