The Ballad of Baby Doe
Central City Opera House
Central City, Colorado
click image for Central City Opera home page
The Central City (Colorado) Opera House,
designed by prominent Denver architect Robert S. Roeschlaub, was the
pride of the west when it opened in early March of 1878 at the height
of Central City's mining heyday. It was a building befitting "the
richest square mile on earth." As one of the town's most visible
women, Elizabeth McCourt was likely in the audience on one of the two
opening night performances, with her husband Harvey, her friend Jacob
Sandelowsky (a.k.a. Jake Sands) or both. She would only recently have
been dubbed "Baby Doe," by the town's miners (a nickname that
would follow her to her grave and beyond), who admired both her youthful
beauty and her willingness to do hard-rock mining in order to have food
The fortunes of the Opera House paralleled those of the town. When Central
City's gold mines played out, the building suffered from years of neglect
and disrepair. Then, in the summer of 1932, a volunteer restoration
effort culminated in a grand reopening that featured Lillian Gish performing
in Camille. Since then, a summer festival of plays and operas has brought
patrons and performers from around the country.
The undisputed high-point came on a gala July evening in 1956, when
the Opera House hosted the world premiere of Douglas Moore and John
Latouche's The Ballad of Baby Doe, starring Dolores Wilson,
Martha Lipton and Walter Cassel, some 68 years after the real Baby Doe
had witnessed the building's debut.
Tabor Opera House
click image for Tabor Opera House home page
No railroad climbed to the lofty heights
of Leadville, Colorado (altitude 10,000+ ft.) when the Tabor Opera House
was built in 1879. Its lavish construction materials arrived by wagonload
over mountain passes that today remain formidable barriers to travel.
Nevertheless, newly wealthy Horace Tabor had built a showcase unlike
any in the west at that time.
Until recently, opera was not a staple of the Tabor stage, despite its
name. As with many nineteenth-century "opera houses," the
Leadville theater primarily hosted civic events (i.e. high-school graduations,
public lectures), dramatic performances, band concerts and cinema presentations.
Prominent performers included Houdini, John Philip Sousa and Oscar Wilde.
John Latouche and Douglas Moore immortalized the Tabor Opera House in
the opening scene of their opera The Ballad of Baby Doe, in
which the building's opening night celebration vies with the rowdy highjinks
outside a nearby saloon. In 2001, Labor Day weekend performances of
a foreshortened version of Baby Doe took place on the historic
stage, featuring three professional singers, a narrator and piano accompaniment.
The program, which it is hoped might become an annual occurrence, was
repeated in 2002 to enthusiastic audiences.
An excerpt of D. Kanzeg's interview with Evelyn Furman, owner of the Tabor Opera House, is available on the Articles, Speeches and Interviews page
Tabor Grand Opera House (demolished 1964)
The Tabor Grand Opera House in Denver
was the most opulent building between Chicago and San Francisco at its
gala debut on September 5th 1881. The "monument to Tabor,"
opened with the Emma Abbott Company performing the "Mad Scene"
from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, as well as a complete
performance of Sir William Vincent Wallace's Maritana.
Constructed at 16th and Curtis, the "Tabor Grand" changed
Denver's image of itself overnight; from an upstart prairie boomtown
to a place worthy of world-class culture. (Imagine fully-staged European
opera being presented in the midst of a landscape that, barely twenty-five
years earlier, had been prairie grassland.) No effort was spared. The
cutting-edge building was regarded as the best-equipped theater between
the midwest and San Francisco, and cost in the neighborhood of $850,000,
in 1881 dollars--a truly phenomenal sum for the time.
Tabor owned the entire block along the southwest side of 16th Street,
between Curtis and Arapahoe. The Tabor Grand occupied the half facing
Curtis. Horace donated the other--the half facing Arapahoe--to the federal
government so that it could start construction of a new main post office
in 1886. Horace knew something, from his general store years in the
mining camps, about a post office's ability to create traffic in the
vicinity of the rest of his Denver real estate. The irony is that years
later, Tabor nemesis President McKinley was persuaded by influential
Colorado politicians to relieve Horace of the penury that had followed
the collapse of his fortune, by appointing him postmaster of Denver.
For the last year and a half of his life, "Haw" earned a bureaucrat's
wage presiding in the recently-completed building that had been erected
on land he had once owned. Perhaps fittingly, since 1965, the Federal
Reserve Bank of Denver has occupied the full block along 16th Street,
replacing both the Post Office AND the Tabor Grand Opera House.
The Tabor Grand lives on in the stirring last scene of Douglas Moore's
opera The Ballad of Baby Doe, as does the prophetic legend
by Charles Kingsley, as sung by an a capella chorus, that adorned
the theater's great curtain: "So fleet the works of man/Back to
the earth again/Ancient and holy things/Fade like a dream."
* * *
Though not built or ever owned by Horace Tabor, nor even in existence while he was alive (it opened five years after his death), the elegant performance space on the third floor of the Haskell Free Public Library must be mentioned in any catalog of opera houses related to the Silver King. This one was constructed barely five miles from the cabin in which Horace was born. And it is unique in a manner that the trail-blazing Senator certainly would have appreciated.
The building sits astride the international border in Derby Line, Vermont and Rock Island, Quebec. The border is even painted on the floor of the turret-shaped corner reading room. The library staff deals routinely with the needs of both communities, and is thoroughly comfortable dealing with the library bureaucracies, the phone systems and the postal systems of two countries, not to mention two languages.
But the third-floor opera house is the jewel in this unusual crown--a beautiful gem of an auditorium, patterned after the Boston Opera House, and bisected by the international border. Most of the 400 seats are in the southern part of the auditorium, in the United States, while the stage occupies the auditorium's northern end, located in Canada. The Haskell Opera House is likely the only performance space on the planet that is so situated. To the best of our knowledge no part of The Ballad of Baby Doe has ever been performed there.
The Haskell Free Public Library
The Haskell Free Public Library sits along the U.S./Canada border. Here, a boundary post is visible on the lawn near a front corner of the building. The automobile is parked in Canada.
The view looking toward the stage from the balcony of the Haskell Opera House, which straddles the international border in Vermont and Quebec. The building was built in memory of Carlos F. Haskell.
The Haskell Free Public Library was featured in a July 2007 NY Times Article. A PDF is available here.
In October 2009, The New York Times featured an article on the installation of security gates on the Vermont-Quebec border. Read the article here.
For more information on the Haskell Free Public Library, see the Links page.