October 10, 2003
A copy of the latest issue of one of my favorite publications, The Chronicles of Oklahoma, has just arrived in the mail. As usual, it contains enough interesting material to satisfy my needs until it's time for the next quarterly issue. This new one has a lead story entitled, "Did They Really Sing Opera in the Opera Houses?" by Susan Booker. She is the librarian for Fine Arts Branch Library and the Architecture Branch Library in the University of Oklahoma in Norman. Ms. Booker obviously has invested a lot of time doing research on this subject, but the only Noble county source of information, according to a photo caption in The Chronicles, is a credit line to our fine Cherokee Strip Museum on West Fir Avenue.
That's too bad. Local folks could have provided some interesting sidelights. Perry once had its own Grand Opera House on the east side of the downtown courthouse square. The old building's sandstone walls started to crumble in 1960 and the historic two-story structure was demolished. In the early days of this community after the Cherokee Outlet land run on September 16, 1893, the Grand was a major factor in the cultural development of this little town on the prairie. In later years it also housed one of our first motion picture theaters.
Incidentally, the Perry photos used in the article are familiar to most of us. One is of an exterior view of the front of the Grand Opera House and the other shows a jam-packed audience when the Opera House was just a few years old. Greatly enlarged copies of those same photos are part of a pictorial display in the lobby of our Heritage Center just off the southeast corner of the square. The Grand opened on May 30, 1901. Will Rogers played there and so did Buster Keaton and his parents. It also doubled as an auditorium for various events at Perry High School, including graduation services and musical recitals. Touring professional entertainers, like Will Rogers, were routinely booked here because the Grand was situated about halfway between Oklahoma City and Wichita, making our town a logical layover spot.
The point of Ms. Booker's interesting article is that although most of the towns in early Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory had performance centers named "Opera House," there is little evidence that opera was ever sung in any of them. That does not seem surprising, given the time and circumstances prevalent in most frontier towns. It is easy to imagine that most folks in the Noble County area, for example were so busy scratching a living from the red soil that they scarcely had time for highfalutin relaxation. The fine arts were scarce everywhere and there was not much of an audience for them. Here in Oklahoma, at least, Opera House operators were practical people who tried to give their audiences acts and performers that they would pay to see. Circus acts and other purely entertaining performances were in demand, not operatic arias.
So, in Perry, our predecessors were content with the likes of Will Rogers, the Keaton family, the John Philip Sousa military band and other notables who happened to be here because of Perry's convenient location. Ah yes, memories of the old Grand Opera House linger for many people. They conjure up images of vaudeville and good musicóbut nothing like the Metropolitan Opera. As a postscript, let me add that The Chronicles journal is published quarterly by the Oklahoma Historical Society and you can receive a copy simply by joining the society. It's well worth the price.