The audience was in a great mood. They had just heard some fantastic music, and were ready for more. The management did not disappoint. Billy McKee came out from behind the curtain, his instrument in his hands. Billy played the bones, an instrument that went back into the mists of ancient history.
Originally thought to have been rib bones pried from an animal carcass after it had been consumed at meal time, the bones were held in pairs in either hand and then clicked together as a percussion instrument. Later, flat sticks made from various types of materials could be used in place of actual rib bones.
Billy McKee was the self-professed “Champion Bone Rattler of the Universe.” He had come to play his music, and that’s exactly what he was going to do. He started off slowly at first, keeping his routine basic. But, as he went along he began to warm up, and his notes and percussion rhythms became increasingly complex.
The audience loved his music, and gave him calls of encouragement and whoops of joy. After a while, Billy, growing hot with his exertions, took off his coat, readjusted the sticks between his fingers, and decided to really cut loose. He played with abandon, faster and more complex than he had so far. By the time he was done, the audience was satisfied that he was the best bone rattler they had ever heard, if not the entire universe.
It was 1915, and Billy was one of the feature acts in the First Annual Fiddlers’ Contest at the Corning Opera House. Along with him were the Orioles, a boy’s singing quartet, and two little girls who sang duets. And, of course, the fiddlers.
Fiddling contests dated back to the 1700’s and were carried over from the eastern regions of the United States. It was commonplace for rural folk to have instruments at home, and they would frequently gather together to play their own varieties of music. There were common songs that everyone knew, but sometimes the groups of musicians would simply play together, improvising their way into brand new tunes.
Some folk music, such as bluegrass, had its roots in this rural practice. Out of all the instruments they played, the fiddle, as the violin was more commonly known in those circles, was perhaps the most popular.
Inevitably, players would want to find out who was better. They formed contests, inviting the best fiddlers in their region to play against one another and determine who was the best.
These contests were extremely popular, and were capable of drawing large crowds. Fiddling wasn’t like the music played in orchestras and music halls in the larger cities. It was the music of the people, common songs and rhythms that told their story and conveyed their feelings, hopes and dreams. A person didn’t have to dress up, or pretend to be better than someone else. They didn’t even need shoes. All a person had to do was to come, enjoy the show, and have the best time that they possibly could.
The fiddling contests that would become so popular in Corning were almost like the variety acts and vaudeville shows that had rolled through the region when the building had first opened.
The fiddlers themselves were the stars of the show, and the biggest draw. There would usually be around ten of them, give or take. The fiddlers would take the stage and play their best tune for a panel of judges, and, at some point during the evening, play a second song for the entertainment of the crowd.
Oftentimes, the prizes for winning weren’t really anything special, and certainly not enough for any of them to buy a house or retire. But, for them, it was the sheer pride of being a champion, for being the very best in the region, that they really strove for.
Players came from all over, from Creston to Nodaway. One fiddler named Ramsey came from Villisca. He was blind, but could still play the fiddle behind his back. Another man was eighty-six and was affectionately called “Grandpa Dewees.” It was said that before his first contest at the Corning Opera House, he had never been inside such a building before.
The acting manager of the Opera House was a man named C. Peregrine. For several years, he provided accompaniment to the players on the house piano. The announcer introducing each fiddler would often put in witty remarks, adding to the overall mirth of the show.
In addition to the fiddlers, there were several other musical acts. At the first Fiddler’s Contest, there was a quartet of boys, called the Orioles, who sang harmony for the crowd. There was also a duo of young girls who sang, as well. Both groups were extremely popular, and the crowd continuously asked them for encores.
Dancers were also popular entertainment. Buck and Wing Dancing, a precursor to modern tap dancing, had its roots in African-American musical traditions. As often happened, the dance steps and motions crossed racial and social boundaries and became part of the makeup of American dance.
Another kind of dance that was performed at these contests was clogging. Originating in the Appalachian Mountain range, Clogging was another form of traditional folk dancing. Many cultures had contributed to its movements and styles until it became a distinctive form all its own.
In 1920, another kind of entertainment was added – boxing. A boxing ring was erected just in front of the stage on the auditorium floor. The audience could either crowd around the sides of the ring, or they could go into the horseshoe-shaped balcony and watch it from above. Boxing had been popular amongst all classes of Americans for decades, and a good boxing match was just as much fun for the audiences at the opera house as any of the musical talent.
Peregrine also ran the nearby Lyric Theatre, which later became the American Theatre. This venue showcased a brand-new form of entertainment that was sweeping the nation at the time – movies. They had only been around a short while, but were rapidly gaining a foothold on the American psyche.
Almost every fiddlers contest in Corning opened with a series of short movies. They were always comedies, and helped to set the mood for the evening. Some of the silent film era’s greatest comedians were played at the Corning Opera House on those nights, including the Keystone Cops, Charlie Chaplain, and Fatty Arbuckle.
Moving pictures provided the highest quality entertainers at a reasonable cost. Normally, a person would have to travel to a large urban area to see that level of performer, but the movies brought them right into the backyard of rural America. For a nickel or a dime, someone could see the very best performers of the age without ever going any further than the next town.
Movies also bought exotic locales and the wonders of the big city with them. People who had never travelled outside the boundaries of their county could now take a trip into Corning and see the wonders of Europe, or the splendors of Africa.
The motion picture was changing the world.
The old travelling shows and vaudeville acts couldn’t compete. The movies could undercut their costs while providing audiences with higher quality entertainment. Rural roads were being paved and were drastically improved, allowing those individuals who wanted to attend a live show to travel further distances. No longer did small-town America have to meekly accept what was handed to them. They had the freedom to travel, and the freedom to choose.
Slowly, opera houses all over the country began to close, no longer able to make ends meet. Some were converted to other purposes, while others were torn down to make way for bigger and better city improvements. Perhaps the saddest ones were those that were abandoned and left to rot, a decaying shadow of their former prominence and glory.
In Corning, the opera house slowly faded away. The American Theatre showed the latest and greatest movies coming out of Hollywood, and the fiddlers’ contests moved to the county fairs.
In 1933, Frederick Charles Reese, the driving force behind the construction of the Corning Opera House, died. He was in his seventies by then, and had some minor heart troubles. While overseeing some furnace work in the basement of the opera house, Reese suffered a major heart attack and died.
A short time later, his widow sold the building to the Adams County Free Press, which had rented space on the first floor of the building since 1922. A year later, in 1934, the last known stage production was held there. Eventually, the old auditorium with its’ grand stage fell silent and unused except for storage.
But, unlike so many opera houses, Corning’s Opera House would rise again.
In 2000, a group of people undertook efforts to restore the grand old structure. With plenty of drive and determination (not to mention a little grant money here and there), they were able to bring the Corning Opera House back to life.
In 2012, one hundred and ten years after the original grand opening, a second grand opening was held for the newly refurbished and restored opera house. After all that time, they were open for business once again, welcoming all who came.
Adams County Free Press, 1915 – 1936
Glenn, George D. and Poole, Richard L. “The Opera Houses of Iowa.” Iowa State University Press; Ames, 1993.
David Holt Interview. ”Percy Danforth – Bones.”
Baker, Bruce E. “Buck Dancing.” www.ncpedia.org, 2006
“History of Fiddling in America.” www.fiddlecontest.org
Northern California Cloggers Association