Coal and Culture: Opera Houses in Appalachia by William Faricy Condee

By William Faricy Condee

A severe appreciation of the opera apartment within the coal-mining area of Appalachia from the mid 1860s to the early Nineteen Thirties, Coal and tradition demonstrates that those have been multipurpose amenities that have been used for touring theater, live shows, non secular occasions, lectures, commencements, boxing suits, advantages, union conferences, and - if the auditorium had a flat flooring - skating and basketball.

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An example of an opera house as an urban hub. The building also housed the city hall, and was situated on the central town square. Photo by Joseph M. Berman. ”27 The prominent position of the opera house in the town landscape is quite evident in the opera houses studied here. Murphy’s Theatre (), in Pithole, Pennsylvania, was, at three stories tall, the largest building in town,28 and the Fisher Opera House () in Zaleski, Ohio, was—and still is—the tallest building in Vinton County. 30 The Benham Theater (Kentucky, ) was on the town square, along with the school, church, and company store.

The tall windows on the second and third floors are clues to the existence of an opera house inside. Photo by David L. Taylor. The opera house was one of the major public buildings in town, along with the town hall—in some cases, it was in the same building as the town hall. 12 The opera house did not stand alone, but operated in the political, economic, and social context of these other vital buildings. These Appalachian opera houses were primarily in towns dominated by coal mining. Coal mining produced distinctive patterns of urban landscape, and therefore affected the location of the opera house and its relation to the landscape.

62 In other cases, such as in “model” towns in Kentucky, companies built completely separate entertainment sites for blacks. Native Americans were considered a curiosity at Marlin’s Opera House (Brookville, Pennsylvania) in , when the Jeffersonian Democrat took special note that “Pawnee Bill and several of his Indians attended the Uncle Tom’s Cabin show . . ”63 The comment suggests that Native Americans at the opera house were notable exceptions to the audience norm. ) Some opera house performances featured female impersonators, which could be considered transgressive today but seems to have been readily accepted by nineteenth-century opera house audiences.

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