Piper's Opera House
Piper's Opera House
|Location||Virginia City, Storey County, Nevada|
|NRHP reference #||97000217|
|Added to NRHP||March 21, 1997|
Piper's Opera House is a historic performing arts venue in Virginia City, Storey County, Nevada in the United States. Piper's served as a training facility in 1897 for heavyweight boxing champion Gentleman Jim Corbett, in preparation for his title bout with Bob Fitzsimmons. The current structure was built by entrepreneur John Piper in 1885 to replace his 1878 opera house that had burned down. The 1878 venue, in turn, had been to replace Piper's 1863 venue which was destroyed by the 1875 Great Fire in Virginia City. Mark Twain spoke from the original Piper's stage in 1866, and again a century later in the third venue, as portrayed by Hal Holbrook in his one-man play Mark Twain Tonight! A lynch mob hung a victim from the first venue's rafters in 1871. American theatrical producer David Belasco was stage manager at the second opera house before moving to New York City. Piper's opera houses played host to Shakespearean thespians such as Edwin Booth. Musical performers Lilly Langtry, Al Jolson and John Philip Sousa once performed here. In 1940, Errol Flynn auctioned off historic Piper memorabilia from the opera house stage, during a live NBC broadcast that coincided with the premiere of Flynn's new movie Virginia City.
Piper sat on the City Council in 1865, and was mayor of Virginia City in 1867. In 1874, Piper represented Storey County in the Nevada Senate. In an effort to raise money for Storey County to pay for railroad bonds, Piper managed to get the state senate to unanimously pass a bill that became law, removing the taxation limits on bullion in the county. Piper ran a chain of venues to accommodate touring companies. Among these were McKissick's Opera House in Reno and the Carson Opera House in Carson City.
Piper died in San Francisco at age 63, on January 3, 1897.
Piper's three opera houses
An 1861 illustration by African American artist Grafton T. Brown depicts the John Piper Old Corner Bar at the southwest corner of B and Union Streets, which aimed to draw the theater crowd as customers. In 1863, Piper purchased an entire block of additional property at the northwest corner of B and Union Streets, which came to be known as Piper Business Block. There Piper built a two-story brick building and relocated the bar to the first story of the new building at the northwest corner of B and Union Streets. The second story of the building was rented out.
Tom Maguire and John Burns opened Maguire's Opera House in 1863. Maguire's was where actress Adah Isaacs Menken appeared in Mazeppa. On October 9, 1867, Piper and his financial sponsor John William Mackay bought Maguire's and renamed it Piper's Opera House. On October 30, 1866, Mark Twain delivered a lecture from its stage. The opera house played host to Shakespearean thespians Edwin Booth, Thomas R. Keene, Lawrence Barrett and John Edward McCullough. Actors Frank Mayo (Davy Crockett) and Joe Jefferson (Rip Van Winkle) brought their one-man shows to the Piper.
In 1871, actor McKee Rankin became witness to an act of vigilante justice during an extended engagement at the Piper. Rankin and fellow thespian William H. Powers were at the bar next to the troupe's International Hotel headquarters, when a customer named Perkins shot another customer and was jailed by the local sheriff. Two days later, on a Sunday morning, Rankin witnessed the lynching of Perkins at the hands of a vigilante mob who hung Perkins from the rafters of the Piper stage. The mob also pulled out their guns and shot Perkins' dangling body.
The opera house, along with most of Virginia City, burned to the ground on the morning of October 26, 1875, an event known as the Great Fire. Piper promoted shows at other venues until he was financially able to erect a new building.
Piper built his new opera house for $40,000 in 1878 at the rear of his bar at B and Union streets. He maintained an apartment in the new building. The opening was January 28, 1878. In May of that same year, an eight-year-old Maude Adams played the character of Adrienne Renaud in A Celebrated Case when the play's troupe performed in Virginia City. American theatrical producer David Belasco was the Piper's stage manager before moving to New York City in 1882. Minister and social reformer Henry Ward Beecher delivered his lecture of Wastes and Burdens of Society from its stage. The new opera house burned down March 13, 1883.
1885: current opera house
Within days of the 1883 fire, Piper had rented Cooper's Hall and began presenting entertainment acts, raising capital to build a new opera house. Piper celebrated the opening of the currently existing opera house on March 6, 1885 with a grand ball. Piper's new building was modernized with a dance floor, carpeting, and hanging balconies. Musical performers Lilly Langtry, John Philip Sousa, Emma Nevada and Al Jolson were among the entertainers in the historic arena.
After John Piper died in 1897, his son Edward inherited the opera house and continued its operation until his death in 1907. During Edward's ownership, the opera house transformed from gas to electric lighting in 1900. Nevada tenor Richard Jose performed at Piper's in 1905. Heavyweight boxing champion Gentleman Jim Corbett used the venue as a training facility to prepare for his 1897 title bout with Bob Fitzsimmons.
Upon Edward's death, his brother-in-law Louis Zimmer used it as a silent movie house. The venue was also rented out for sports, community socials and civic events. The building was condemned in the 1920s. On March 16, 1940, Errol Flynn arrived in town for the premiere of his new movie Virginia City. The movie's cast and crew, along with attending media outlets, gathered at the opera house for a live NBC broadcast of Flynn auctioning off historic Piper memorabilia. After the movie premiere, Zimmer operated the venue as a museum until 1960.
After Zimmer's 1960 death, Piper's great-great granddaughter Louise Zimmer Driggs opened the venue to summer concerts until 1972. Sixteen years later, Driggs' daughter Carol Piper Marshall, a graduate of The Juilliard School in New York City resumed management and opened the venue to entertainment once again. She died March 1, 2006. Mark Twain, as portrayed by Hal Holbrook in his one-man play Mark Twain Tonight!, trod the boards to a sold-out audience at Piper's. Tennessee Ernie Ford was another act at Pipers during this period.
Louise Zimmer Driggs began restoration work on the opera house in the 1960s. She sold Piper's in 1997 to the non-profit Piper's Opera House Historic Programs. Grants from the Nevada Department of Cultural Affairs, and a National Park Service Save America's Treasures grant, have enabled structural reinforcements and renovations.
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- Official Piper's Opera House website
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- Nevada-Landmarks home page
- A Guide to the Piper's Opera House Playbills and Tickets, 91-33. Special Collections, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Reno.
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