Work on the farm was hard. Fred woke early every morning to tend to the livestock. Then breakfast, then back out to tend to the crops. He sowed in the spring and harvested in the fall, with each having their own special work and needs to meet. In addition to all that, there was house and outbuilding maintenance and taking care of farm equipment.
Farming was very hard work.
It was also rewarding. Fred went out every day and battled against the elements, taking his own two hands and building something out of nothing. There was something to be said for that.
But, there was one factor that always nagged at Fred, along with many other farmers – entertainment. While it was true that you were always around nature and got to enjoy it first hand, and the hogs and cows had amusing little quirks, it didn’t always satisfy. And it was always a good practice to read every night from the Good Book with the wife and children, but sometimes it would have been nice just to not think so deeply.
No doubt Fred would occasionally think back to those ten years he spent on his own farm near Corning, Iowa, as well as his youth on his parents farm elsewhere in Adams County. He would remember those days he spent in the field, longing for entertainment – the kind that you couldn’t get at home.
Now that he was running the Corning Opera House, he could make sure that others received the wholesome entertainment that he had wanted for all those years.
Civilization Comes to the Frontier
Reese had pushed to build the opera house the previous year, in 1902. In the first week that it had been open, it had done very well. However, on the night of the grand opening, not many had come out to see the show. But that didn’t matter. There were many more nights of entertainment to come.
While entertainment was important, the real driving force behind most opera houses in Iowa was that they represented the wealth and prosperity of a town. Many people, even at the turn of the 20th Century, still thought of small towns in rural Iowa as little more than frontier towns, with the barest essentials of life. An individual there had what was needed to survive, but none of the perks of a Des Moines or Cedar Rapids.
But, if a town had the money to build an opera house and rotate shows and acts through it, then they were a lot closer to being like the big cities. A town could get in travelling acts from New York, and bring all the nuance of the civilized East into your area via the extensive railroad system crisscrossing the nation. In other words, if your town had an opera house, then your town had class.
With the opera house built, Fred Reese had helped to bring civilization and prestige to his beloved Adams County home. But now he needed some prime entertainment value.
Entertaining the Masses
In the early 1900’s entertainment at an opera house always involved a live act. Motion pictures were in their infancy, and no one really had any idea of what they would one day become.
Live entertainment came in a variety of forms, and Reese, as manager of the opera house, brought them all.
Perhaps the most common and popular form of entertainment then was the Vaudeville variety act. These shows consisted of several small acts in one show, each one designed to provide the audience with maximum entertainment value. There was singing, dancing, and animal acts. Comic skits featured heavily in many vaudeville shows, often satirizing everyday life. Stage magicians and ventriloquists could also be part of the act. Vaudeville was affordable entertainment that had a broad appeal, no matter where the act would travel.
Acting troupes were also common. Some, like the Morey Stock Company, put on a variety of plays over a given stretch of time. On one night, you might have a comedy, while the next you might have a drama. The Morey Stock Company was the very first opening act in Corning, but they would come by and play the venue again over the following years.
Other troupes would headline just one or two more well-known actors in a single play to attract an audience. People would come and see the big name, and the entire troupe would benefit. They would come into a given town, and then be gone on the railroad the next day. William Owen, who was the star of the play performed at the opera house’s grand opening, was one such act.
But the Corning Opera House wasn’t just a place to come and see a good show. The auditorium and stage was designed to hold over seven-hundred people. Because of this, there were several groups around town that would host their event there.
Local churches would sponsor lectures about different subjects from ministers there. Travelling lecturers would also frequently stop in and give talks. Sometimes it was a convention consisting of several days of speakers, or, more frequently, a single lecturer.
On Decoration Day, the precursor to the modern Memorial Day, local veteran’s groups would hold festivities there in honor of their fellow soldiers. The Corning High School would hold contests there, as well as their annual commencement.
A Variety Act of It’s Own
The opera house was a truly eclectic institution. More than simply providing a venue for entertainment, the Corning Opera House gave old friends a chance to socialize. It gave a venue for local groups to assemble in honor of accomplishing something important in their lives, or the sacrifice that others had made for their state and country. The opera house wore many hats, and it wore them well.
Behind it all was the guiding hand of Frederick Charles Reese, primary shareholder and manager. He booked the acts and brokered the deals. He was the brains of the Corning Opera House, providing guidance, while the travelling acts and the very people of Corning itself were the heart and soul that breathed life into it.
But while all the social service and entertainment acts that travelled through provided many good things for the spirit of the region, they weren’t making anyone wealthy. The opera house had bills to pay, and it would take a little something else to help make ends meet.
Be sure to stop in soon and read how in the next installment of this blog.
Glenn, George D. and Poole, Richard L. “The Opera Houses of Iowa.” Ames; Iowa State University Press, 1993
Schwieder, Dorothy. “Iowa: The Middle Land.” Ames; Iowa State University Press, 1996.
“The Enduring Vision.” Lexington, D.C. Heath and Company, 1996.
Adams County Free Press 1902 – 1915