100 Years of History
in Five Minutes or Less
Al Hirschfeld was a successful caricaturist for the New York Times. You may remember him—his drawings appeared on the pages of the newspaper for more than seven decades. He was sharp and witty and not a little sentimental. After the birth of his daughter Nina, he began to subtly sketch her name into his illustrations, expertly hiding the letters within the details. He meant it as a lark, something he would do for a week or two in celebration of her arrival. But it became something of a trend as his fans made a game of counting the number of “Ninas” hidden within the cartoons. As a result, Hirschfeld would continue to hide her name in his illustrations for years to come, jotting a number beside his signature to indicate how many times the epigraph appeared.
That’s the thing about art—it’s personal. Whether you’re drawing or interpretive dancing, all art contains something of the artist. And it’s with this in mind that we’re changing the way we bring you our monthly blog. For the next few months, we will be showcasing the people that bring the Matthews to life. Sometimes entertaining, sometimes inspiring, there’s always a story and, by golly, we’re going to share them all or die trying. (Wait… Death by storytelling? That’s ridiculous—we’re not really doing that.)
To kick it off, I’d like to introduce you to the people that built and preserved the Matthews. These individuals believed in the power of the arts to transform lives and committed themselves to providing a home for generations of artists, musicians and actors. In other words, they took their mission personally.
The year—1906. A local cattleman, Thomas Matthews, opens the doors of his newly constructed opera house. Legend has it that Matthews attended a performance in a theater out of state and, dissatisfied with his seating, vowed to build a space where he was guaranteed a good seat. Whether fact or family fiction, the legend became a reality and the Matthews Opera House was born. Matthews was dedicated to the ideal of bringing a high standard of arts to the West and his theater hosted traveling companies from all over the world.
However, with the arrival of the “talkies,” a new movie theater in town, and looming economic depression, things changed dramatically for Matthew’s playhouse. In the few short decades since it opened, the facility underwent a number of changes; from theater to basketball court, it even did a brief stint as a shooting gallery. As you can imagine, the interior of the space received significant damage, windows were broken and pigeons and bats took up residence in the rafters.
Then, in the late 1940s, the Matthews building was purchased by the Kelley family. Matriarch, Margaret Kelley took a stand when it came to the opera house and said that it must not be destroyed, despite its deterioration. A bold move, and one that would resonate for many years to come.
In the 1950s and early 60s, a group of fine arts students from Black Hills State Teacher’s College took an interest in the opera house and desired to perform in the facility but, by then, the place was in extraordinarily poor shape. However, they were determined. Through their efforts, a revitalization was begun and for the first time in nearly thirty years performances were staged on the theater’s boards. First, Old Spearfish Opera Company and, later, Stagecoach Theater was born, producing melodramas despite the lack of “modern conveniences” like air-conditioning and multiple public restrooms.
Although the Kelley family owned the building, the cost of truly restoring it was beyond the reach of a single family. Thus, it was up to the citizens of Spearfish and, by 1985, the Matthews Opera House Society and the Spearfish Center for Arts and Humanities were formed.
The Kelley’s commitment to the Matthews Opera House was substantial—a 99-year, rent-free lease was granted to the two non-profit organizations. The opera house expanded, gaining office space, dressing rooms, a lobby and a downstairs gallery. Restoration efforts began in earnest and what started as the “Crown Jewel” of Spearfish came full circle.
This is, admittedly, a very streamlined version of a tale that spans more than 100 years. For a more detailed telling, feel free to stop in and visit with one of our staff or request a tour. Or, better yet, join us for one of our many fantastic performances and let yourself soak in a century of history.
To get more information about our upcoming events or to purchase tickets, visit https://www.matthewsopera.com/events/