Wednesday, March 14, 2012

ON THE STAGE; A historical look at Boise's stage entertainment

Idaho's musical history began during the Civil War, when the young territory's population was mostly male and largely foreign born. Although there were talented amateur musicians who played at local dances, the chief attraction for the many men far from home and family in the east were itinerant players who went from mining camp to mining camp.

No musician who visited Boise City in the 1860s was better known or more universally admired than an Irish violinist named Johnny Kelly. His ability to move an audience of rough old miners to tears was legendary. "As an artist with the bow he had no equal in that day," recalled former Governor William McConnell in memoirs published 40 years later.

"He could make his pet instrument tell a plaintive tale of home and mother, or of tearful ones who awaited, oft in vain, the return of father, brother, or lover; again, he would arouse the reckless instincts of his hearers by some rollicking tune which told of wine and song."

Kelly's wife, a talented musician herself, usually accompanied him on his travels. In January of 1865, she sang a sentimental ballad of her own composition entitled "My Mother's Grave," and in September that year Kelly introduced "the new and popular song" "Write A Letter to My Mother." Both are examples of the sentimental tear-jerkers McConnell recalled. Wherever the Kellys went they received enthusiastic reviews in local newspapers. Comments like these were commonplace: "As a violinist, Kelly is unrivaled," and, "Mr. Kelly [is] the great violinist of the Pacific Coast."

In 1879 a Lewiston man wrote of a Kelly performance: "The old man has lost none of that fine and delicate touch of the bow that I used to hear the boys talk about when they heard him play in the palmy days of the [Boise] Basin."

As a fellow Irishman Kelly appealed to Idaho's large Irish population-the most numerous national group in the mines until the Chinese arrived in the late 1860s. McConnell called Kelly "a big-hearted son of the Emerald Isle," who often "through untoward circumstances, had to ply his trade in gambling houses and saloons rather than theaters or concert halls." McConnell's description of Kelly in action in an Idaho City gambling hall is typical of the former governor's colorful prose: "He commanded a salary second to none and was engaged in the largest gambling resort in the city. The contract under which he played included the installation of a swinging stage or platform, swung by iron rods from the upper joists, several feet above the heads of those who might stand on the main floor below. This platform was reached by a movable ladder, which, after he ascended, he pulled up out of reach of those below.

"The object was two-fold: First, when located upon his aerie, he was removed from the danger of panics, an almost nightly occurrence, caused from the sporting instincts of some visitor, who, having imbibed too freely of the regulation vest-pocket whiskey, or having suffered some real or imaginary grievance, proceeded to distribute the leaden pellets of a Colt's Navy revolver, not only into the anatomy of the offender, but quite as frequently to the serious, if not fatal injury of some innocent by-stander.

"When it is understood that it was not unusual for 500 men to be present in the room at the time these diversions occurred, it is not difficult to imagine the kind of panic liable to ensue. Hence, the first object of Kelly's lofty perch. His second object was to be above the course of flying missiles and thus preserve his violin, which was a valuable one, from the chance of being perforated by stray bullets."

Popular as he was, Kelly still had to present enough variety in his programs to hold the attention of his boisterous audiences. An Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman item of August 26, 1865, said, "John Kelly, the musician and vocalist, with his wonderful Indian, arrived in this city yesterday, and will give one of his grand parlor entertainments this evening." Kelly's "wonderful Indian" was a boy of about three who performed acrobatic feats that amazed and delighted audiences. "Willy," as he was billed, accompanied the Kellys in their travels throughout the West. It was a tough life of constant travel since there was not enough business in small towns to enable even favorite performers to appear in one place more than a night or two. The esteem the Kellys enjoyed, both in Boise and in Idaho City, is reflected in the number of "farewell concerts" sponsored by leading citizens of those towns each time the Kellys were about to leave. The papers urged everyone who loved good music to turn out and pack the house for the benefit of the performers.

Laudatory reviews from newspapers in other cities often preceded the arrival of traveling musicians, giving local audiences an idea of what to expect. However, not all of them were favorable as this 1873 example shows: "Taken all in all, the concert was well worth listening to, though it cannot be doubted that one or two attempts at singing were excruciatingly execrable."

Early musicians had to perform in very primitive places, as Kelly's experience shows, but in Boise things gradually improved. One of the city's first performing halls was a place run by a furniture maker named J.H. Slocum. In 1871 the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman ripped him as "the little-souled extortionist who has been in the habit of renting his hall at exorbitant prices for public amusements, and then charging the public twenty-five cents a head for the privilege of sitting in his wooden chairs, the refuse stock from his shoddy shop across the street." Opposite from Slocum Hall, at the corner of Sixth and Main, stood Good Templars Hall, a much larger building that provided superior space for audiences and performers alike; it soon drove the unpopular Slocum out of business. The Good Templars were members of a temperance lodge that rented their hall for public dances as well as musical and theatrical performances.

Sonna's Opera House was Boise's first really fine facility designed for public entertainment. Peter Sonna, a hardware merchant, opened his two-story brick and iron building at the corner of Ninth and Main on January 4, 1889. The theater was on the second floor over the hardware store. Subsequent remodelings of the building have eliminated the opera house and changed its facade, but the Sonna Building is still there. Peter Sonna hired James A. Pinney, operator of a Main Street bookstore and a lifelong enthusiast of the stage and performers, to manage theatrical bookings for him.

In 1892 Pinney, a five-time mayor of the city, opened his own grand Columbia Theatre on Jefferson Street near Eighth. Memorable appearances there included some of the greatest musicians of the 19th and 20th Centuries. Certainly the word "greatest" was freely bandied about, as in May, 1894, when W.H. Sherwood was billed as "America's greatest pianist," and in 1896 when, with perhaps greater justification, Edouard Remenyi was touted as "greatest violinist." He was certainly one of the greats of his day.

Ernestine Schumann-Heink, billed as the "world's greatest contralto," performed at the Columbia Theatre in April 1904. She would visit Boise again in the 1920s, her powerful voice as great as ever. She, like other established divas, was first brought to America by Herman Grau who had begun bringing European opera stars to America 30 years earlier. In February, 1899, Jules Grau, one of the Herman's sons, treated Boiseans to an entire week of grand opera by The Grau Opera Company of New York City. Another brother, Maurice, was manager of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, and London's Covent Garden Opera house at the time. Brother Matt Grau, business manager of the traveling company, told a reporter that they could manage to offer top-flight opera in small towns like Boise because they saved money by staying a week in one place rather than doing one-night stands. On the tour that brought them through Boise the Grau company had a repertoire of 27 operas--more than enough to allow them to offer a different performance every night.

In 1908, as his new Pinney Theatre was being built across the street, James Pinney brought a performer to the Columbia who really did qualify as "world's greatest." On February 10 Polish pianist Ignace Jan Paderewski dazzled a standing-room-only Boise audience. A headline proclaimed: "When Paderewski touches the ivories he makes the piano laugh and sob, scream, chatter, shout and roar." Paderewski, who would become the new Polish Republic's first Prime Minister at the end of World War I, was also chosen for the post in his country's exiled government in Britain during World War II.

Other highlights of Boise's memorable musical year of 1908 included the Chicago Symphony on April 4 and the New York Symphony on June 9, with famous director Walter Damrosch. Although Idaho's little capital city was a long way from anywhere else, it was never culturally isolated. Musical "greats" really did come here, and they have continued to come ever since.

Photograph (James A. Pinney's Columbia Theatre opened in 1892.)

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