Live entertainment, high and low, in Trinidad
by Ken Fletcher
TRINIDAD — This is the last in a series of exclusive articles by revered Trinidad historian, Ken Fletcher, on early entertainment in Trinidad and Las Animas County. Fletcher’s extensive historical research has been invaluable in the chronicling of southern Colorado’s rich heritage. His contributions to First National Bank of Trinidad’s calendar series have enlightened and entertained residents, old and new, for many years. Thanks to Joe Tarabino for his work in gleaning material from Fletcher’s archives to create these fascinating glimpses into Trinidad’s early years.
Central Park Theatre
In 1907, a dance hall pavilion, cafe and theatre, all designed by the Trinidad architectural firm of I.H. and W.M. Rapp, where moved from Jansen, west of Trinidad, to a new location near the intersection of Smith Avenue and San Juan in Trinidad, thereafter known as Central Park. The theatre building at Central Park came from the street railway’s park that had been established near Jansen in 1905. Unfortunately, the offerings at Jansen’s Electric Park did not attract enough patronage to justify its continued operation and it was closed at the end of the 1906 season.
Central Park opened on May 25, 1907, and was a privately owned amusement park established by businessmen brothers John and Barney Tarabino. It offered a selection of amusements including baseball, a merry-go-round, dancing and boating on the lake. The park attractions were open from mid-May to mid-September, but the theatre remained open year round.
The theatre building was enlarged, adding thirty-five feet to its length, and the stage was widened from nineteen to thirty feet. The roof was raised so that a complete set of scenery could be lifted to clear the top of the stage without being visible from the auditorium. Stage performances were put on by the Central Park Stock Company. “High Class Vaudeville” was offered, along with silent pictures, “All For 5 Cents.” During its first year of operation, the Central Park Theatre presented several troupes of vaudeville players. One such company performed “The Wizard of Wall Street” An advertisement opined, it to be “Just what Trinidad theatre-goers want.” Some of the performers included Gertie Dunlap “The cleverest soubrette in America” and “a bunch of funny comedians.” Rea Berger gave forth with his “comedy fiddle” along with skits by the Roberts Brothers.
For a community of the size of Trinidad, the selection and quantity of various types of productions put on at the Central Park Theatre was astonishing.
The West Theatre
According to early news sources, performances of stage plays were offered in Trinidad for those of refined tastes as early as 1880. The stage play “Lucrezia Borgia,” was given in the second floor hall of the recently completed Mitchell Block on East Main Street. The hall continued to book stage performances until the fall of 1882, when a more ample auditorium located on the second floor of the Jaffa Opera House building replaced it. The Jaffa itself was closed in 1906, by order of a grand jury investigation, “as a measure of public safety.”
After a two year hiatus, Trinidad folks were afforded the opportunity to attend a show place spacious enough to accommodate large-scale road show companies of the legitimate stage and vaudeville performances. By March 16, 1908, with the completion of the 1,200 seat West Theatre and its commodious stage, productions of the legitimate stage were offered, including opera, performed by traveling troupes from Denver or, in some cases, direct from eastern cities. Vaudeville acts also appeared with companies from the Orpheum Circuit of Chicago and, by 1911, were offered the first three days of every week. Trinidad audiences seemed to enjoy vaudeville and, by 1917, encouraged the management of the West Theatre to add improvements to the stage and increase the number of acts offered for each performance from four to six. The entire play bill would come direct from Denver’s Empress Theatre.
By 1924, the West returned to the vaudeville offerings from the “Junior” Orpheum circuit of Chicago (the same circuit as in 1911 but with the word “Junior” added). Vaudeville continued to be part of the programs offered at the West Theatre until at least 1933.
One would think that by 1908, with the West Theatre, the Crystal Theater, and the Central Park Theatre all offering vaudeville acts, there would be no call for an additional house to enter the competition. Not so!
In April 1910, the Dreamland Theater, a small store front nickelodeon on East Main Street (which previously only showed silent movies) entered the competition. The owner of the theater, Mr. C.E. Miller, reportedly sold the place to the Colorado Film Company of Denver for $2,500. According to the Daily Advertiser, Mr. William Requa and Ed Harris, of the Denver company, stated they would, “ as soon as the remodeling is finished, begin presenting to Dreamland patrons two of as good acts of vaudeville as can be found at any house of its kind, and the best and very latest films and songs and add that the price will not be raised.” The remodeling consisted of installing a stage and a full set of scenery. A column and an advertisement in the Daily Advertiser on April 16 stated the theater was opening that evening, featuring the Requa Vaudeville Company, consisting of six people. Then, two advertisements in the same newspaper, one on April 19 and one on April 20, both announced “Grand Opening Tonight”.
What adds to the muddle is a more perplexing column that appeared in the Daily Advertiser on April 23:
“For the present the Dreamland theater will return to moving pictures only its vaudeville features being cut out. Ed Harris and his wife who have been the heavy part of the vaudeville bill there have quit and will probably return to Denver. William Requa is still manager of the house for the Colorado Film company of which C.E. Miller is a part and as soon as Miller’s Denver house gets open the vaudeville will be resumed in the Dreamland here.”
Then, on April 26, 1910, the Daily Advertiser reported that Dreamland had been repossessed by C.E. Miller. It also was reported that “Mr. Requa, after having charge for less than two weeks, will go elsewhere.” The question arises, did a vaudeville performance ever take place, especially when the date of opening was left to conjecture? We do know that when the theater reopened again, thereafter it only featured silent movies.
Must the show go on?
The Great Depression of the 1930’s had the largest impact on the decline of live stage performances of vaudeville, especially in smaller cities and towns. Much of the country’s population could no longer afford the asking price of a ticket to view it and small town theatre owners could no longer guarantee the booking fees. The success of talking pictures (movies) proved to be another obstacle.
But vaudeville, both in its methods and art, did not perish; it simply reappeared in the succeeding media of radio, film and television. Several television variety shows owed much to vaudeville, such as the Ed Sullivan Show, Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” the Carol Burnett Show, and the outrageous “Gong Show.” To this day, first run movies will sometimes have the format of vaudeville, such as in “Chicago” or the movie version of the radio program “A Prairie Home Companion.”
Will live vaudeville return to the boards? History does have a way of repeating itself. But only time will tell.