Any town worth its salt will bring great entertainment, and the start of Sioux Falls was no exception. Settlers from major eastern cities wanted to bring traveling theater productions to town for their own enjoyment, and many felt that Sioux Falls should be able to provide better entertainment than Sioux City. Booth’s Opera House was built in 1883, but as a roller skating rink, by Richard H. Booth, building contractor extraordinaire.
Booth was born on September 20, 1826, in Poughkeepsie, New York, where his father ran a fabric factory. At 17, Richard entered an apprenticeship to learn the trade of carpenter. After learning the tricks of the trade, he went into business and moved to New York in 1847. On December 17, 1848, he married Sarah C. Boulette. He and his young family moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and then to St. Paul before settling in Sioux Falls in 1870. Booth built the city’s first church, the first Cataract Hotel, the Sioux Falls Penitentiary, and the first buildings of the Deaf Mute. The school, among others.
In 1883 the nation was in the throes of a roller skating craze and Richard Booth was ready to help. He built his rink on the south side of 8th Street, between Dakota and Main, west of the driveway. It was a popular place, but the craze has faded here as in the whole country.
In 1886, Booth transformed his skating rink into Booth’s Grand Opera House. The exterior was fairly unremarkable, but the interior was impressive for this fledgling community. There were six private boxes, as well as the latest style of wooden opera chairs, arranged on a sloping floor, amphitheatrically. There were several levels of seating, including an orchestra circle, a dress circle, a balcony, and a gallery. The theater was gas-lit, including the small stage. Tickets were 50¢ for ground floor and 35¢ for balcony seats. Private boxes were $10. The room could accommodate 800 people and there was no bad seat in the house.
On opening night, July 1, 1886, Booth’s opera house was filled with the city’s upper crust. Roy Williams, innkeeper of the Merchant’s Hotel, bragged about buying the first ticket sold. Harry Corson of the Cataract bought two boxes from the theatre. All were impressed with everything but the show, which fell flat. The play was “Success”. The lead actors were said to be impressive, but the supporting actors seemed to work without the benefit of rehearsal, or even an introduction to the other actors. One role, played by 12-year-old Carrie Dillon Webber, stole the show.
Although impressive for Sioux Falls, the location still left a lot to be desired. Fred Beecher, who ran the Coliseum in 1946, recalls his days as a young usher at Booth’s: “One of the greatest shows we ever had there was ‘Trip to Chinatown.’ The stage was so small – 15 feet – that they could only fit part of the set. And there was a scene in which all the characters couldn’t get on stage. They were just kind of coming for their lines.
The wooden building was windy and cold in the winter. There were two stoves to heat the building, one at the front, near the stage, the other at the back. On the coldest days, actors and spectators warmed up around the stoves.
Booth’s Opera was the pinnacle of Sioux Falls theater until 1898 when the new theater opened. The new theater was far more impressive, with a much larger stage, glowing lighting throughout, and seating for 1,300.
Booth’s opera continued as a smaller venue. Graduations were celebrated there, as well as orations and smaller performances. In February 1905, the Opera House changed hands and became the Novelty Family Theater, where films were shown and other performances were held. All seats were 10¢. The novelty kept the doors open until May 8, 1905, when a fire broke out in the projection booth. Film in the early 1900s was highly flammable, and projector lamp lighting methods were known to sometimes produce sparks. It was obviously a problematic combination, and the projectionist’s practice of keeping a box of film under the lamp didn’t help matters. The fire put an end to the novelty.
Over the years, other businesses moved into the building formerly known as Booth’s Opera House. It served as a radiator maintenance shop, Semm’s Magneto Shop, which serviced electrical equipment, and a parking lot with a plumber’s office in the basement.
In September 1944, the building was purchased by Ed Leaders of Leader’s Construction. The plan was to raze the building and build a new structure as soon as the moratorium on wartime construction was lifted. The old building was finally demolished in July 1946.
Back when it was a working theatre, Booth’s Opera House was home to many superstars of the day, including actors Madame Modjeska and Course Payton. While their names have faded from the popular zeitgeist, so has the ancient opera that once delighted so many.