Echoes of an Old Opera House

By Beacon Staff

A campaign is underway to build a 1,300-seat performance hall in Kalispell. If the proposed Glacier Performing Arts Center succeeds in bringing large-scale live entertainment back downtown, it will be a step back in time.

Looking at the McIntosh Opera House today, it is hard to visualize what the building once was.

The dilapidated opera house sits just above what is presently Western Outdoor on Main Street. The Kalispell Antiques Market and Norm’s News make up the rest of the building, collectively known as Opera House Square.

At street level dark wooden planks line the building’s exterior. Above the planks, faded orange bricks surround tall dusty windows. An old wooden door inexplicably placed on the second floor of the structure’s exterior hints at a fire escape long since removed. The original entrance, positioned between Norm’s News and Western Outdoor, still stands. It takes a vivid imagination to picture the live acts that once graced the stage.

Plays, concerts, operas, professional wrestling, championship boxing, basketball and political speakers all stopped to entertain at the opera house. Local events such as high school graduations and performances, dances, debates and parties were also held there.

“The fact that we had an opera house that early in the Wild West era is pretty remarkable,” Gil Jordan, executive director of The Museum at Central School, said. “There were plenty of Wild West areas without that kind of culture and entertainment.”

The stairway leading to the opera house groans with each step, the stairs’ metal caps tarnished with time. The lobby waits at the top of the stairs.

“My daughter runs a flute studio up here,” says long-time owner Gordon Pirrie, pointing to the studio renovated from an old storeroom. The trills emerging from the flute studio are the only music the opera house has heard in nearly 70 years.

The lobby has also changed.

Sleeping rooms that once housed traveling performers are now apartments. The ticket booth has been transformed into a closet for a washer and dryer.

On the wall hangs an old black-and-white photo of the building’s original owner John McIntosh, a docile looking man with short dark hair parted down the middle and a large curly moustache.

McIntosh, a hardware man born in Canada of Scottish heritage, moved to the budding town of Kalispell 1891. Five years later he began building the opera house.

According to historian Kathy McKay the opera house was opened in December of 1896.

A large metal door still serves as its entrance.

“This is an early fire door,” Pirrie says, describing the soccer goal-sized door. “It is wood covered with tin. It is pretty much what they use today; they were ahead of the times on that.”

Pirrie swings the door open to reveal the opera house’s interior.

An early performance of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” drew an estimated 1,100 spectators. Removable padded chairs lined the hard maple floor. People crammed the aisles, the gallery, stood on benches and sat on windowsills to catch a glimpse of the stage, which stood 5 feet and was equipped with curtains and scenery.

McKay researched the interior of the opera house and said the 21-foot metal ceiling was cream colored with gray walls adorned with cardinal red panels.

Admission ranged from 50 cents to a dollar for adults and less for children.

In 1904 the stage was moved from the east side to the west side of the building and a balcony was added.

The McIntosh Opera House continued to entertain into the 1930s. A 1935 fire and explosion destroyed the stage and the gallery’s roof. Repairs were made but the stage was never replaced. The Opera House began to fade from use in the 1940s although it continued to host wrestling and boxing matches into the 1950s.

A mattress and a bicycle are among the random objects now strewn across the abandoned auditorium floor. The ceiling is cracked and missing in some spots. The walls and trim are painted sea green, like the lobby and staircase. The cavernous old room more closely resembles an attic or unfinished basement than the elegant opera house it once was.

Kalispell held a town meeting in the early 1970s to discuss restoring the opera house.

“They wanted $9,000 to do a structural integrity study on the building,” Pirrie says, explaining he didn’t have enough money at the time.

The opera house’s descent into disuse has resulted in a long hiatus for large-scale performances and events in downtown Kalispell.

The Glacier Performing Arts Center hopes to change that with its proposed $27-million auditorium to be located behind Kalispell Center Mall. Although the project has raised only 17 percent of its total development costs, the public is buzzing about the possibility of a new performing arts center downtown.

“It adds activity to the community,” Andrea Goff, executive director of Glacier Performing Arts, said. “We are an arts mecca. It is a gradual progression to larger facilities.”

Goff believes the capacity of the opera house is too small to merit renovation for the kind of performance center downtown needs.

Pirrie, who has passed ownership of the opera house to his children, wonders if a new arts center could ever match the sound of music reverberating through the old auditorium. He remembers a party he once had in the historic performance hall.

“The acoustics were just amazing,” he said. “I’m not sure if they still are, but they were.”

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