National Register of Historic Places in Storey County

National Register #97000217: Piper's Opera House in Virginia City

National Register #97000217: Piper's Opera House in Virginia City

Storey County Courthouse and Piper's Opera House Storey County Courthouse and Piper's Opera House
16 March 2016
(Click Photos to Zoom)

National Register #97000217
Piper's Opera House
12 N. B Street
Virginia City
Built 1885

This building is the third Piper's Opera House. The previous two were destroyed by fire.

Theater abounded on the Comstock. The most important theater in Virginia City was Maguire's Opera House which was built and operated by an unlettered New York cab driver. Other theaters in Virginia City were the Howard Street Theater (one thousand seats), The Melodeon, Topliffe's Theater, La Plata Hall, the Temple of Comedy, the Niagara Concert Hall, and Henry Sutliff's Music Hall. Other early Comstock theaters included the Gold Hill Theater, the Chrysopolis Hall in Silver City, the Spafford Music Hall in Dayton, and Moore's in Carson City. Lucius Beebe wrote that the Comstock hosted twenty theaters during its silver decade, the 1870s.

John Piper was probably the most influential theater owner in the West. He owned theaters in Reno, Truckee, Carson City and San Francisco. He maintained his own traveling troupe. In 1867, he bought Maguire's Opera House and renamed it Piper's Opera House. The Piper brothers, John, Henry and Joseph, had arrived in San Francisco from Germany in 1850. John opened a fruit and vegetable stand next to the Bella Union Theater in Portsmouth Plaza. He purchased hid first property on the Comstock in 1860.

Mark Twain lectured at both Maguire's and Piper's. Other lecturers, including Henry Ward Beecher and Susan B. Anthony, addressed immense crowds. William Jennings Bryan delivered his Cross of Gold speech twice.

Edwin Booth, Lawrence Barrett, John McCullough and Tom Keene played Hamlet. Eugene O'Neill's father, James O'Neill, appeared with Hooley's Comedy Company. Other attractions were Buffalo Bill, Hermann the Wizard, minstrel shows, trained-dog acts, flying canaries, spiritualists, feminists, and phrenologists wielding cranial calipers.

With the discovery of the Great Bonanza in 1873, a new dynasty of silver millionaires emerged. Virginia City became the richest place on earth, and one of the most cosmopolitan. During this time the brilliant young playwright and future Broadway producer David Belasco worked as the stage manager at Piper's.

The Great Fire of 1875 destroyed Piper's Opera House as well as three Piper residences. Enough gold coin was found in the safe to fund Piper's second opera house which was considered the most beautiful of his three Comstock houses. This building was destryed by fire in 1883, and Piper's third opera house opened in 1885.

3 December 1885, Emma Nevada played to standing room only.

On 19 July 1887, Lillie Langtry and her company performed Pygmalion and Galatea. She arrived in Carson City aboard her private Pullman, the LaLee.

On 13 April 1889, John L. Sullivan and James Morrissey met for a big glove contest . That January the maple auditorium floor had first been marked for basketball games.

On 4 March 1896, John Sousa and his Peerless Concert Band performed.

Essentially nothing has changed since the third Piper's Opera House opened in 1885. Light panels, scenery flies, steps to the proscenium, raked stage, backdrops and curtain, balcony, and box seats are intact. The rafters are papered with playbills from the great performances. Emma Nevada smiles as prettily from her playbill as she did on her honeymoon concert tour in 1885. The stage carpet was autographed by Hal Holbrook following his performance here as Mark Twain in 1981.

Adapted from the NRHP nomination submitted in 1997.

Piper's Opera House is Nevada Historical Landmark 236 and contributes to the Virginia City National Historic Landmark..

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