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Morgan’s History of Theatre

Article Date: 
26 August, 2011 (All day)

 

The news has been stirring about a community theater company and its version of the Broadway Musical “Annie” which will be held at the Morgan High School Auditorium, this week August 25th, 26th, 27th and 29th. 

 Where did Morgan have their performances before we had the high school auditorium? That was a simple question, but there is not a simple answer.  

In the earlier years of Morgan, the cultural and social growth that evolved in various locations with a variety of entertainment, has been described in some of Morgan histories.  “This hardy generation met the challenges with determination, ingenuity, and faith. Obstacles became stepping stones on which to progress and improve circumstances and lifestyles,” reads chapter 11 of , ‘Morgan Cultural and Social Life’, of A History of Morgan County by Linda H. Smith.

    Places for dances and parties were often held in private homes,”Baltzar Peterson’s two-story home in Richville was considered one of the finest homes in the area and was used for dances and parties by the young folks....After one-room school houses were built, these structures were used by residents for social activities.”

 The first private establishment was a small frame building known as Simmons Amusement Hall in the settlement of South Morgan, built at 241 Island Road (300 West Street) by George and William Simmons.

“The frame building was approximately 40 feet wide and 60 feet long. A good sized stage was located in the west end,” described in Mountains Conquered compiled by Mary Chadwick and members of the Fine Arts Study Group of 1958.

This facility provided a place for plays, dances, and other social activities. Besides the local groups, theatrical groups came in from the outside and would stay for a week at a time. They also had some of the old Medicine Shows with their stunt acting and noisy music, then the performers would go through the audience selling their cure-all medicines.

The hall was later turned into a roller skating rink and they even had their own orchestra for music while skating.

 Simmons Hall was also referred to as “the Old Morgan Opera House”, Joseph Ether Butters at one time was a co-owner. He and his wife, Isabella made home-made ice cream which they sold during intermission at dances in the Old Opera House.  

Morgan also had organized theatrical groups. ”Many fine plays were presented by Morgan Dramatic Company. Edward Wadsworth was the director, as well as the male lead. Other members were Sophia Turner, Fred Parkinson, Kate Wadsworth, Laura Eddington, Alma Gibbie, Maude Littlefield, Evelyn Harding, Lizzie Campbell, Jesse Little, Hyrum Gibby, Charles Harding, James Anderson, Roscoe Brough and Dr.W.A.C.Visick.There were probably others whose names we were not able to find.

They worked on two plays at one time and after they were presented to Morgan, they would travel by train to Farmington, Willard and Coalville. They would stay two nights so they could present both plays.....When the company was first organized, they presented their plays in the Simmons Hall and later in the Opera House” 

 By 1906 the population of Morgan County had grown to 1,807, and a large group of citizens decided there was need for another facility.....It was their intent to build a new larger facility in which to hold social activities.

On 26th March,1906, a group of county residents organized the Peoples Opera House Company, George Hogg, a mason, received the contract to build the opera house. For the purpose of being used for “theater, exhibitions, lecture, public parties and all kind of amusements”. 1st of January 1908, the capital stock of the company was increased $10,000 to $15,000, in order to complete and furnish the interior of the building. The shares were $10.00 each. There were 45 shareholders,who had the option of purchasing from one to fifty shares each.[1]

The Peoples Opera House was located on the the corner of State Street and Young Street, adjacent to the county courthouse.

The building was 100 feet long by 50 feet wide, with the height of 30 feet to the square, built with gray sandstone quarried in Deep Creek and trimmed with red sandstone. The foundation was limestone, quarried at Como. The first story held the theater, which had a sloped floor, a large stage, dressing rooms, a foyer, a ticket office, and a room for checking coats and hats. 

A stairway on the right side of the foyer lead up to the dance hall on the upper floor. The dance hall had a hardwood floor, with a raised seating area six inches high and four feet wide for spectators. On the east end was a three foot high orchestra stand.

The ceiling was unfinished, and for a short time until the high school gymnasium was finished, (in 1915), the league basketball games were played in the ballroom. The dance floor was covered with a canvas and players would shoot baskets through the white-painted rafters.

Construction of the Opera House occurred at a most beneficial time, for both the adult citizens and high school students. At that time there was no gymnasium or auditorium built .The Opera House provided “a respectable environment was maintained ...and no rowdiness was allowed.”

The Opera House also served as headquarters for political torch-light rallies and for hosting state and national officials.

Economic and social changes effected the activities at the Opera House. In the 1920s, automobiles were being used for pleasure; other buildings had been provided to accommodate all school; social, and athletic activities. Como Springs had been developed into a prominent public resort. This left the LDS Church as the primary user of the Opera House and the income did not justify continued operation of the building; a decision had to be made.

On the 15th of March 1924, the People’s Opera House Company officers agreed to an arrangement in which 49% of the interest in the building was deeded to the Morgan LDS Stake, and 51% deeded to the South Morgan LDS ward. A church committee was appointed to operate the building which was rented to individuals and groups. Money collected was used for upkeep of the building and for janitorial services.

During this transition, “the advent of the picture show came about. The first movie shown at the Opera House was  titled “The Birth of A Nation”. Some minor interior remodeling was done to provide a screen and a booth to house the projector and equipment.”

The church committee got Mr. Wiiliam (Bill) Warman of Salt Lake City, on contract to produce a weekly Wednesday evening picture show. This type of entertainment became very popular with the public. Bi-weekly movies were shown and patronized. The committee decided to secure the necessary equipment, rent the film, and operate their own picture show business.Then in 1929, sound was added to the motion pictures.

The Opera House had competition when Moroni Clawson began to operating a picture show in the Vallis Theater on Commerical Street. The effects of the Depression, followed by World War II further reduced patronage. The Morgan Stake were making plans to remodel the LDS Tabernacle and construct a new building for recreational and social activities. As a result, the Opera House stood idle for several years, until Alva Dearden decide to buy it and remodel it, in 1948 . 

On the other side of town, the Heiner Hotel a three-story brick building, built in 1890 (later known as the Vallis) was sold to Moroni and Harriet Clawson in 1912.

 Mr Clawson applied for a picture show license on 8th of May 1917 from Morgan City. A theater with a stage on the main floor of the hotel provided a place where silent movies were shown there for many years. Milton Fry ran the hand operated movie projector and at times the movies were somewhat jerky or erratic. When a reel needed to be changed on the projector, the lights came on and a young woman would play the piano until the projector was ready. Films containing sound replaced silent movies, however with the theater located so close to the railroad tracks, when a train went through Morgan, the movies once again silent as patrons could only hear the sound of the train, this would occur three or four times during a show.  

A Morgan County Newspaper dated 9th of September 1937 read,   “The new Vallis Theater opened Saturday with Metro Goldwyn Meyer picture, ‘Born to Dance’. For the comfort and convenience of its patrons, the Vallis has installed air conditioning, comfortable air inflated seats and an Intermountain Research Sound System. The theater will open every evening at seven. Milton Fry will be in charge of the operations. The furniture is of latest design. In regard the entire building contains equipment and furnishings compared to those in the most up-to-date theater hotels and apartments in the West. It is beyond a doubt one of the best improvements made in Morgan. The winners of the contest to name the theater and hotel are Mabel Welsh and Viola Porter Whitesides.They submitted the name “Vallis” which means Valley.They received a prize of $10.00 to be shared. Owners are Mr.and Mrs. Virgil Stewart.”

 Alva Dearden and his wife Cecil Dearden of Henefer, leased the Vallis Theater from Virgil Stewart in June 1945. Deardens hired local residents to operate the theater. In 1948, the Deardens purchased Morgan Opera House from the  LDS church and converted it to a modern theater.  This ended the movies in the Vallis theater and opened a new business in South Morgan. 

 “The upper story was removed and a modern up-to-date theater was constructed. On August12, 1949,the opening night was held. Two shows are held each night with the exception of Tuesdays. It will seat 425 people.” The dance floor was removed, and the ceiling raised. The floor was sloped for better viewing. The entrance was changed to include a new foyer and ticket office. A confectionery(candy) booth and room for projection equipment was built. New heating and lighting systems were installed along with a larger screen and modern opera seats. Deardens purchased the latest and best projection equipment.....Morgan was proud of its first-class picture show theater

The Deardens cooperated with the sentiment of the community in securing and showing the best quality pictures available. No shows on Sundays. Most of this era movies were shown Wednesday through Saturday nights.

 The popularity of the picture show decreased, and so did the movies offered and cut back to twice a week. Then in 1970 the Morgan Movie Theater closed.

The old Opera House building once again stood empty for several years until it was purchased by Sherdon Woolstenhulme,who remodeled it into a modern restaurant, the Spring Chicken Inn. Larry Wiggill, present owner and operator,purchased the building and business in August 1987.

 In 1978 the Vallis Hotel was sold to William and Beverly Dahlquist and was converted into apartments. 

The Vallis Theater/Hotel  building is still standing it houses The Dance Academy, where the theater was and the three-story apartment building is still functioning, located on Commerical Street.