Oakley was different. While other small towns in the West had schoolrooms and church stages for local plays and traveling troupes, Oakley had an Opera house. Today, Oakley is still different. While other towns in the area, some not so small, have schools or church stages for local plays and traveling entertainers, Oakley has an Opera House!
Oakley's Opera House started with a dream, conceived and nurtured by Judge B. P. Howells. Judge Howells was mainly a self-educated man who came to the Oakley valley with some of the first settlers in 1879. He was an attorney in the Diamond-field Jack trial, a famous incident in the cattle and sheep men's disputes of the late 1800's; later he became a county judge.
In the early part of the century there were no movies, no television, and no radios. Traveling troupes of actors were the only sources of outside entertainment available to small town residents. Judge Howells and his family, along with the rest of the community, looked forward to this entertainment, but the actors did not have a proper place to perform.
In 1904 Judge Howells contracted two masons, George Croft and William Dummer, and two carpenters, Cyrus Cavanass and Elmer Mecham, to build his theater. The masons brought reddish brown rhyolite rock, quarried from the hills about three miles east of Oakley, to lay the foundation. On these rocks they laid solid walls, three bricks deep. The bricks came from a local brickyard only a mile away from the construction site where the clay was dug, formed and fired.
As the walls rose, the carpenters installed floors and door and window frames from wood harvested in the Albion mountain range east of town and milled at nearby lumber mills. When the building was enclosed, the interior walls were plastered except for the back of the stage.
The theater was finally finished in 1907 at the cost of $22,000. Judge Howells owned one of the most luxurious theaters between Salt Lake and Boise. Theaters and playhouses were considered risqué as burlesque was performed in them. Because Howells owned a high-class theater, only good plays such as melodramas and farces would be performed there. Thus, he named it Howells Opera House. however, the first opera that anyone remembers being performed in the Opera House was Mennotti's Amahi and the Night Visitors, sponsored by the Oakley Valley Arts Council in December of 1986.
Howells Opera House was highly acclaimed for its large size and acoustical excellence. Over 300 people, seated in the balcony and in the balcony wings against the north and south walls, could attend a single performance. This was far more than the usual small town school or church of that time could accommodate. The high dome ceiling, raked (sloped) stage, and seating area assured that each one of those 300 people could hear every word that the performers spoke. The audience sat on curved wooden theater seats with wire racks under the tilt-up seat where the gentlemen could place their hats, rather than on the commonly used hard wooden benches. Between performances the audience could admire the embossed tin ceiling or read the advertisements on a stage curtain the rolled down. Backstage, the players enjoyed room to move around behind the scenery and the luxury of dressing rooms in the basement.
A wood burning furnace first heated the building with supplemental heat from coal stoves. Lighting was from gas and kerosene lanterns placed on the floor of the stage and hung from the ceiling. These created quite a fire hazard, once almost causing the building to burn down. Bernice Howells, son of Judge Howells, told of the time when a lantern had tipped over. Only a quickly formed fire brigade kept the fire from doing any serious damage to the building. Shortly after that, electricity was brought to Oakley. There was also no plumbing in the original building.
Judge Howells arranged for touring groups to come to Oakley on their way between Salt Lake City, Boise, Portland, Seattle and San Francisco. Often Judge Howells personally met the players' train at the depot in Minidoka and escorted them sixty miles to Oakley. Once here they often remained as long as a week, putting on different shows each night. The players stayed at the Worthington Hotel, only a half block south of the Opera house, and they borrowed their props from the Thomas Furniture Store, just one block away.
In the late 1920's the Howells family sold the Opera House to the LDS Church. It became known as the Cassia Stake Playhouse (later the Oakley Playhouse). Movie projectors were installed at the back of the balcony, and family movies were shown on a weekly basis. The building was also used for school, church and community productions and was in almost continuous use for most of those years. Rising costs and general deterioration forced the church to consider demolishing the structure in the 1970's. Oakley residents had seen at least one of their cherished old buildings destroyed, and they didn't want that to happen to this historic public building. A group of residents formed the Oakley Valley Arts Council, and two years later they were able to purchase the playhouse from the LDS Church and begin its restoration.
Since 1983 the playhouse has been completely rewired, insulated and re-plumbed. The foyer has been remodeled with a center ticket both replacing the old "closet" arrangement and commodious bathrooms have been added. A large concession stand was also built. The aisles in the audience seating area were widened to meet the current fire code. The cushion seats, which replaced the old wooden ones in the 1940's were repaired and recovered. Additional supports were installed under the balcony, and carpeting was laid throughout the building. In 1984 a new stage curtain and cyclorama replaced those installed in 1928. The out-dated heating system was replaced in the 1970's, and the interior of the theater section was repainted. Crystal chandeliers and ceiling fans were also added. In 1986-87 the basement was enlarged to make room for larger dressing rooms, restrooms, a storeroom and an office. Also at that time a new sewer system was installed so the basement restroom-dressing rooms could be plumbed. These basement rooms were insulated and rewired, and new sheetrock was put on all the walls and ceilings. New lighting, mirrors and carpeting were added when the painting was completed.
During the spring of 1989 a new spotlight, a stage lighting system, and a sound system with four individual microphones were purchased. Also that same summer, the opera house was looking better than ever with a new roof. These last major additions and constructions were done with money received from matching grants from the Idaho Commission of the Arts and the National Endowment of the Arts. All restorations, remodeling, and redecorating have been done with the advice of the Idaho historic Society. Other funds for improvement and work have come from donations, county revenue sharing, and revenue generated from the annual spring productions. Much of the labor and materials have been donated. If all of the labor had been paid for, it is estimated that the cost of the renovation would have been well in the excess of $500,000.
The Howell Opera House is once again on the move. Currently under construction is a new costume and set building. Thanks to the dedication of some wonderful volunteers we are pleased to announce the walls and floor joists for the north half of the building are up and the inner walls are complete. A new sidewalk on the northside of the building has been installed. this spring and summer the OVAC board will we installing the flooring and roof trusses up on the new costume and set building. OVAC appreciates all the donations we have received form area patrons and will gladly accept additional contributions for this much needed addition. All contributions are tax deductible. If you are intereseted in helping or donating contact us at 208 677-ARTS.