Between 1880 and 1920 opera houses in small towns throughout Nebraska provided entertainment and culture, including performances by stock companies, musical programs, specialty acts, minstrel shows, and lyceum courses. Most of the entertainment presented in opera houses was not grand opera in the classical sense. Many of the musical productions were based on popular music of the day. Plays were performed by stock companies, actors who prepared a repertory of presentations during the summer and toured them during the season, which extended from September through May. Vaudeville first appeared as a diversion between acts of stock company plays and eventually replaced legitimate theater as the standard fare offered at many opera houses.
Nebraskans who lived in Omaha or Lincoln regularly saw contemporary entertainment stars. Actors and plays of national and international renown arrived several times each month for runs of several days. Smaller communities like Fremont, Grand Island, Hastings, and Kearney often booked these top attractions for one or two nights, trading on their strategic rail line locations between major metropolises like Kansas City, Omaha, Denver, and Minneapolis.
Late in the nineteenth century, small towns were offered an entertainment option by booking agencies known as lyceum bureaus. For a set price, usually $500, a season of four, five, or six musical performances or lectures could be purchased as a package. Nebraska opera houses also sponsored many community activities such as home talent productions, dances, political meetings, school plays, declamatory contests, and athletic events. Often the opera house was the only facility in town large enough to accommodate the crowds.
A combination of circumstances caused the demise of the opera house. A syndicate formed by a group of New York businessmen in 1896 to control both theatrical productions and the outlets in which they were presented, overpowered small stock companies that had catered to opera houses in the Midwest. Live entertainment was replaced by movies, and opera houses not adapted for use as movie houses were eventually closed.
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