A group of Fort Collins businessmen including Judge Jay Bouton and Franklin Avery began the project of building an opera house in Fort Collins in 1880. The beautiful 3-story building, which was ahead of its time, opened in 1881 to Fannie Louise Buckingham in the title role of Mazeppa. Some of the best troupes in the country occupied the stage of the opera house. It also served as a facility for high school graduations and for other local programs.
Construction was begun on the Opera House block in the 100 block of North College Avenue, on a site owned by Jay H. Bouton. The three-story building included F.C. Avery’s Larimer County Bank, space for Welch’s new store and the Windsor Hotel, along with the Opera House. The opera house was built over street level shops. It had an entrance highlighted by stone pillars and arches. Frescoes and a drop curtain depicting a scene from Colorado’s San Juan Mountains decorated the interior. One third of the seats were inclined and there were four boxes on the east side. In the early years, the Opera House was the host of a wide variety of programs and people including:
On July 7, 1881 Fort Collins citizens met at the Opera House to grieve President Garfield’s July 2 assassination.
In 1884 the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) sponsored a spelling contest in the Opera House. Ansel Watrous was the judge.
On June 2, 1893 the third annual commencement exercises of Fort Collins High School were held in the Opera House. There were eight students in the graduating class.
On November 4, 1893, Larimer County, by a vote of 1,136 to 555 went along with the state in favoring equal suffrage for women. Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt, a leader in the national women suffrage movement, spoke in Fort Collins at the Opera House shortly before the election.
On July 27, 1894 Blind Tom, a black man appeared at the Opera House. He played anything he ever heard previously from the finest compositions of Liszt, Beethoven and other great master of the efforts of local composers. He also repeated a speech he heard delivered by Stephen A. Douglas 34 year earlier.
In 1899 the Old Maid’s Convention was held in the Opera House under the auspices of the Presbyterian Ladies Aid Society. Fort Collins leading ladies in church and social circles represented the “Old Maids”. The ladies were on stage and the curtain opened to them in grotesque costumes and a box with a poodle dog. They sang songs and committee reports were given on the eligible young bachelors in Fort Collins. The antics of the group kept the audience convulsed.
On January 1, 1902 there was to be a basketball game at the Opera House at 8 PM. High school vs. Boulder Preps of 1900. There was a dance after the game at no extra charge.
October 12, 1904, 500 season tickets for the lecture course would be sold at $1.50 each. William Jennings Bryan was to deliver a lecture at the Fort Collins Opera House.
On August 9, 1905 the interior of the Opera House emerged from the hands of artists who wrought a wonderful change. The ceilings were tinted afresh, a new roof added, woodwork in the interior was tinted in 3 shades of willow green and olive green. The upper third of the wall was tinted in fresh colors ornamented with an 18-inch border carrying Colorado wildflowers. The cove was tinted in cream with wreaths of sunflowers with electric light bulbs projecting from the center of the flowers. The space between the lights and centers bore a pink tint, ornamented with swallows and flowers. The ceiling was decorated in very light canary with flowers, scrolls and balls. The centerpiece in the ceiling was made in seven different tints, ornamented with flowers, scrolls and flowers. A beautiful freehand sketch in oil of the Mount of the Holy Cross adorned the space between the proscenium column and the wall on the right of the stage with a free hand sketch of the Garden of the Gods on the left-hand side. Above the proscenium arch the walls were ornamented with a large scroll showing a banjo and guitar, very true to life. Charles Beffrey of the Fort Collins Wallpaper Company designed the beautiful interior ornaments.
Moving pictures with 47,000 exposures of the San Francisco earthquake disaster were shown at the Opera House in 1906. The production was a benefit for the Fireman’s Monument Fund.
November 21, 1907 was opening night for the Orpheum Theater, Fort Collins’ second theater on North College Avenue. Two prominent Fort Collins businessmen financed the construction of the theater which was to be part of the Orpheum circuit. Its location was at 163 North College. The main auditorium of the Orpheum was 110 feet deep and could seat 866 people on its mahogany finished chairs. It also showcased a 50-foot lobby. The entire audience sat on the group floor on four inclined planes so everyone in the house had a clear view of the stage. The opening feature was “Squaw Man” at an outrageously high price of $10. Later performances were 50 cents and less.