"Romance of the Grand Opera House Continues"


From the Capitol Journal circa 1987

In its earl days Pierre was the end of the line for the railroad. Many people who stopped, stayed, at least for a while, reluctant to continue the journey west across the Missouri without the luxury of the railroad. In November 1906 the Daily Capital Journal wrote, "Pierre must have close to 4,500 population at the present time. Of course, many of these people are workmen on the railroad and bridge extensions."

R.B. Hipple, publisher of the Journal today and lifelong resident of Pierre, remembers just how it was. "Pierre was a jumping off place. It was a 24-hour day and night place as long as the railroad was here."

With such an influx of people, Pierre was the perfect place for an opera house, and Charles L. Hyde knew it. In building the Hyde Block in 1906, he included an opera house of impressive proportions. The Grand Opera House sported a stage 32 feet wide, 30 feet deep and 20 ft wide. Twelve hundred seats were spread through three levels - 600 on the "dress circle" (main floor), 400 in the first balcony and 200 in the second. Near the stage were box seats with exits. In addition, according to Dr. Theodore Hyde, who worked at the opera house when it became a motion picture theater, a gallery was built to seat minority people, but was not often used. Ten dressing rooms were available to the actresses and actors. The Feb. 6, 1906, "Free Press" said the opera house was the same size as a new Sioux Falls theater.

"Hyde intended that his Grand Opera House be a place for entertainment, for gatherings, plays, operas and musical comedies," Harold H. Schuler said. Schuler, a Pierre resident, is writing a book, "History of Early Pierre and Fort Pierre."

The Grand Opera House was not quite complete when it opened on Oct. 25th, 1906, and was lighted temporarily with kerosene fixtures. The evening's performance was a play by Quincy Adams Sawyer, who was billed as one of America's great actors with a superb company of stars, Schuler said. It was a sell-out performance, with tickets costing $3, $2, and $1. the following night the Mazie Trumbull Opera company presented a musical farce. The Oct. 26, 1906, "Sioux Stock Journal" called the opera house the "finest and best playhouse ever built in South Dakota."

R.B. Hipple, who was six when the opera house was built, remembers seeing productions as a young man. " I saw Shakespeare performances and stage plays just like you see in Chicago or New York."

Coryl Walters of Pierre recalls crossing the ice from Fort Pierre during the winter to see Clint and Bessie Robbins' vaudeville act every year.

"Everybody loved Clint and Bessie," she said, "and looked forward to them every year. You'd see somebody and say, 'Well, it's about time for Clint and Bessie.'"

Walters said the opera house had great, lush stage curtains that were "quite fabulous for the time" and that the interior was ornate with scrolls.

Every winter 8-10 stock companies would ride the rails into town. Each company would perform three or more different plays on alternating nights. "The Convict's Daughter" was billed as "a heart story, pure in thought, action and language." "The Holy City" was advertised as "the theatrical event of the season and the greatest show ever brought to Pierre." "The Royal Chef" was the largest comic opera performed at the Grand Opera House.

Not all performances received rave reviews. In a letter to the editor of the Daily Capital Journal, a "Huronite" said, "We have been woefully done and we want to acknowledge it. The show at the opera house last night was fierce - Shakespeare's immortal lovetale 'Romeo and Juliet' was presented by a bunch of barn stormers. If the bard in Avon didn't turn in his grave last night he never will."

The stock companies continued to come to the Grand Opera House - the Della Pringle Stock Co., Roscians Opera Co., Chase-Lister Theater Co., the Noble Theater Co. High-class vaudeville was as popular as drama and opera. Many times Pierre citizens were recruited as extras by the stock companies and sometimes the community put on its own show.

In 1909 Otto B. Linstad of Pierre directed a Civil War drama called "The Crisis," Schuler said. The play consisted of five acts with 55 in the cast, all local talent. The June 24 Capital Journal said, "It is the largest number of adults ever engaged in one single dramatic production in Pierre."

The opera house was a community facility. In its first year, C.L. Hyde offered the use of his new theater to the inaugural entertainment committee. A reception was held there for the new state officers and members of the Legislature and a banquet was held on its third floor.

By 1917 the railroad had been taken over by the government. Stage theater companies no longer flocked to Pierre as before. "Pierre wasn't as lively a town as it had been," R.B. Hipple said. When Charles Lee Hyde returned from the Air Force in 1919, Hipple said, he converted the opera house to a motion picture theater.

Pictures were advertised as "the latest, most realistic and startling moving pictures. Everything new, sensation continual." The Grand Theater, as it was then named, was in competition with the Hipple owned Bijou theater on South Pierre Street. Movie prices varied, but in general adults were admitted for a dime, children for a nickel.

Hipple recalls that the first movie in the Grand Theater was "Birth of a Nation." An entire orchestra score was written to be played with the movie and the projector was located behind the screen. When "talkies" hit the screen, the Grand Theater's competitor, the Bijou, was the first in Pierre to present a film with sound in 1930.

The Grand Theater was still used for community projects and vaudeville shows. In November 1930 the woman's club of Pierre presented a "musical extravaganza" in three acts with a cast of 100 people.

In 1933-34 Patrick Feeney lived in one of the balcony rooms in the Grand Theater while he played Junior League baseball. He was the advertising manager for the Grand Theater, which included distributing handbills under every windshield wiper in town. In addition, he took tickets, ushered and kept children from sneaking in the side doors and balcony exits.

Feeney said that for the price of an old tire or two used inner tubes, a child could receive a free ticket for the Saturday matinee. The tires and tubes 2 were piled outside and burned in the furnace to heat the building.

"Charlie Hyde used the ones that were in fair condition," Feeney said. "He was notorious for taking kids to ballgames (in his car) and having 4-5 flat tires in one trip."

Feeney said that the Grand Theater still had an occasional live act and remembers Sally Rand, the bubble dancer. "Her only protection was those balloons, you know," he said.

Viola Corcoran worked at the Grand Theater for more than 30 years as a ticket seller. During World War II, she was the only woman movie projector operator in South Dakota, which raised her salary from 50 cents to 75 cents an hour.

The stage area of the Grand Theater burned in 1932. "I remember it, because I was then out of a job," Corcoran said. The theater closed for repairs and the stage area was rebuilt without the dressing rooms once used by the opera house performers.

Hyde sold the business (but not the building) in 1956, Corcoran said. "The new company didn't want a woman working for him," she said, and she was replaced by a man. However, when they had problems they asked her for help with the projector and she found herself re-employed.

John Hipple recalls that the projection booth extended into the balcony with seating on either side. For high-backed bus seats were placed in front of the booth and, Hipple said, people would arrive as much as 20 minutes early to claim them. Although popular with couples, the bus seats were not exclusively theirs, and children and adults would compete for the best seats in the house.

Westerns were popular for several decades and Leonard Powell was one of the many Pierre children who saw every Western he could. Powell remembers Tom Mix, Tim McCoy, Ken Maynard and Roy Rogers and their trick horses. Additional adventure was seen in the Tarzan movies and comedy in the Marx Brothers and Wheeler Brothers movies.

"I remember crying to my mother when we didn't have a tire I could take to pay my way into the movie," Powell said. "Imagine, crying over a tire." He said by the time he rolled the tire to the theater, he would be covered with grime.

Each movie began with the latest news and a Walt Disney cartoon, perhaps Mickey Mouse or Betty Boop. A short serial, a story that continued with each new film at the theater, followed. Only then did the main feature begin.

The State Theater Company of Brookings changed the name of the Grand Theater to Studio 109 in 1968. Opening night of the "new" theater was Feb. 8 with the showing of "Sand Pebbles," said Russell Nash, who worked at both the Grand Theater and Studio 109. Nash recalls that "The Sound of Music" ran for 11 weeks, with people returning again and again to see the musical extravaganza. Studio 109's last movie was "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" on April 25, 1978.

The State Theater Company closed the movie theater at Studio 109 because business was better at the new State Theater and at the Sioux Drive-in. Hyde Holding Company approached Pierre Players, a community theater group, with an offer they couldn't refuse.

"One of the things that attracted us were the masks of comedy and tragedy as you entered the theater," Nash said. "It was just like 'they' were planning on us, like it was meant for a community theater group."

Pierre Players renovated the theater to meet its needs, which included removing the movie screen and speakers and extending the stage into the seating area. Studio 109 now seats about 300 on the main floor. The balcony houses the costume and lighting departments and, when musicals are shown, the orchestra.

Studio 109 was opened to its first live theatrical performance on May 12, 1978, with "No Sex, Please, We're British."

Some say the Grand Opera House is home to its own ghost. "I have not met the ghost," Nash said. "I have known people who have met him, or her, or whatever. But I hear strange, unusual noises in the theater and I always blame it on the ghost."

Eighty-one years after its birth, the romance of the Grand Opera House continues.