Throwback Thursday: Looking Back on Opening Night 1932

With opening night of Central City Opera’s 2013 Festival now just a few days away, let’s look back on July 16, 1932, the opening night that started it all…

Crowds filled the street before the sold-out first performance of Camille in 1932. 

Although the Opera House was built in 1878, the Central City Opera House Association was not founded until 1932. It was then, after years of the building falling into disrepair, that Central City Opera as we know it began its storied history. All of the stars seemed to be aligned that summer, granting our company a near-perfect opening night and inaugural season, which at the time was called the “Central City Play Festival.”

Robert Edmond Jones

What made that night so special? Well, to start, the Association was able to gather an all-star cast and production team, including Broadway legend Robert Edmund Jones as Director/Producer/Designer and film star Lillian Gish as the lead role in Camille. Opera historian Charles A. Johnson commented on Jones’ involvement by saying, “To have him appear in a crumbling mining town was akin to having a head of a major studio direct a play at a local high school.” Exaggerated or not,  having these big names involved in the opening season certainly did wonders for the reputation and attendance in that first year, especially given the widespread skepticism of outsiders. The hope was to lure many of Denver’s elite to Central City. However many of those individuals thought it was preposterous to travel to Central City, up the “Oh My God” Road, only to see a performance that could easily be put on in one of Denver’s existing, established theaters. But when it came down to it, they showed up in droves and the entire first week of performances sold out! In fact, an estimated 5,000 people showed up to Central City just to be a part of the historic event, knowing full well that the Opera House could only seat a fraction of that.

Camille was a very interesting choice as the first production for the new Association. Based on an adaptation of the 1848 Alexandre Dumas novel The Lady of Camelliasthis piece had been performed in a less formal manner in Central City throughout the late 19th century. Though the 1932 performances of Camille were a rousing success, the production was never staged again in Central City. Additionally, Jones took the production to Broadway the following season where it had little success, especially when compared to the reception it received in Central City. As Charles A. Johnson explained, “Part of the problem with the Broadway production had been its inability to evoke a Victorian era in a thoroughly modern city like New York. In Central City, a town that lived in the past, this had been no problem.”

Lillian Gish in Camille at the Central City Opera House

In 1932, Camille patrons were encouraged to emulate the fashion of the 1870s, for which many and most obliged. Many patrons also showed up on horse-drawn carriages, further adding to the nostalgia that Robert Edmund Jones and the Association were striving for. Honoring in the past is something that Central City Opera thrives on, even to this day. Although a conscious effort is made to stay trendy and innovative on both the artistic and business fronts, many past traditions remain intact as a part of the Central City Opera experience. Today, while you won’t likely see horse carriages or 1870s attire scattered across Eureka Street, nostalgia and tradition come in the form of the Flower Girls, the Usher Song and the famed dynamite blast to ring in the beginning of the Festival.

Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue magazines covered the fashions worn for 1932’s Opening NIght.

There is no doubt that the success experienced on the opening night of Camille was a catalyst to the prosperity that Central City Opera has experienced in the 81 years since then. With favorable media attention from outlets such as The Denver Post, Vanity Fair, Time Magazine and the New York Times, the Central City Opera House Association seemed poised for success from the very beginning. 

If you can’t join us this Saturday, June 29, for the 2013 Festival Opening Night in Central City, tune in to our live broadcast on Colorado Public Radio, over the air or online.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *