Opera house headliners have their day in the sun
VIRGINIA CITY – A man clad in a red costume is balancing on a pole in the basement of Piper’s Opera House.
The man is in profile, his back arched into the air. After a few minutes, another man is seen. He’s wearing a green costume and is balancing on the other man’s shoulders. His feet are over his head.
Art conservationist Karen Zukor slides her putty knife in between the antique poster and the wood ceiling, revealing an act long forgotten, inch by inch. More acrobats tumble into view.
In her other hand is the humidifier, which looks like a vacuum cleaner extension. It moistens the wallpaper glue that has held 15 to 20 posters to the ceiling of the Old Corner Bar for as long as 120 years. The posters were elaborate, but they were temporary. The advertisements were meant to be up for a short time and then torn down.
“They didn’t put them on the ceiling to look at them,” says Margo Memmott, executive director of Piper’s Opera House. “They did it to cut down on drafts.”
As the poster comes down, so does dirt that squeezed through the cracks in the floor above their heads. Memmott stands beside Zukor, waiting to hold the piece and pass it down to the assistants. They also look eager to discover the story of each piece. It’s Wednesday, the second day of work, and almost all of the posters are off the ceiling.
Zukor holds an Exacto Knife like a surgical knife to cut the poster. She says the smaller pieces make it easier to handle.
When this poster was made, traveling acrobats were featured attractions at the local theater house. As were minstrel shows.
Most of the posters were glued to the ceiling so that passers-by only saw the backside. That’s the reason why this glimpse into 19th century entertainment was left undiscovered for so long.
The opera house is undergoing a rehabilitation to stabilize the floor of the auditorium, which is why the posters had to come down now. The Memmott decided to save the posters rather than have them covered by steel beams.
“It’s like finding a hidden treasure,” she said. ” But we have to move fast because we lose money if we delay the construction very long. But it’s also sensitive. You don’t want to rush too much.”
Zukor’s neck and arms are aching. She often works blind because the humidifier fogs up her goggles. It’s uncovering a treasure. You don’t want to stop even though everything hurts.
“It gets really exciting,” she said.
Disjointed words come into view. Names are missing some letters such as “oodyear.” Faces that had been concealed for a hundred years once again see light.
Zukor peels back the paper to reveal the portraits of two men inset into the acrobat scene. Perhaps they are the acrobats themselves. Perhaps they are the remnant of another poster. Those who pasted the posters up here had a utilitarian purpose in mind.
“You’re never quite sure what you’re going to get,” she says.
They’ve reached a difficult piece wedged under a water pipe. The pipe sweats when the steam hits it. Zukor’s fingers find the parts of the poster that are still sticking to the ceiling.
“It says: The Arabic, something, wonderful,” reads Memmott. It comes loose and is passed 12 feet down to an assistant who then lays it out on contact paper. That’s where the piecing will begin.
“We’re working blind because we don’t know what we’re saving or what could be layers of posters,” said Zukor, who is from Oakland, Calif. She was referred to this project by the state archivist.
The acrobats, apparently, are Mazuz and Abecco: “The Arabs! The Wonders!” And sometime around 1885 they were here inside this opera house entertaining those who got rich off the Comstock Lode.
The opera house looks quite a bit different than it did then. It’s been under renovation off and on since the late 1960s. To get to the area formerly known as Piper’s corner saloon, located in the southeast corner of the opera house, a visitor has to cross over a large pile of rubble. The basement looks like an excavation site. Spotlights are affixed onto a section of the ceiling that is about 30-by-40 feet.
They’ve discovered six distinct posters: the Arabic acrobats; a prolific actress named Eunice Goodrich; a play called “After Dark”; a show performed by George Thatcher’s Minstrels The Darktown Brothers; a black man posing with his bass; a blond-haired man in a band uniform.
The Darktown Brothers poster is the most unsettling because it depicts the racist attitude common in the 1880s, Memmott says. This poster – in one piece would be 10-by-12 feet – tipped them off about the others because it was the only one pasted face down.
“My suspicion is that this was a black-face troupe because of the way people in the group are depicted,” Memmott says. “When you look at it, it’s upsetting. The people are depicted like animals rather than humans. It’s very racist.”
In contrast, the black man posing with his bass is drawn in great detail in attractive clothing.
The executive director hopes to find grant money to have Zukor preserve the posters for display inside the opera house once it’s completed. The renovation project could be completed in about four years. So far $2 million has been spent on the opera house and, she said, they need about $4 million more.
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