Our History


The story starts with Thomas N Matthews, a Texan who drove 3,000 head of cattle to Wyoming’s grasslands in 1881. He started a ranch there, but moved his residence to Spearfish when his wife became ill. Spearfish, still in its youth, was already known for its progressive medical care and the couple eagerly sought the city’s top-notch doctors.

It didn’t take long for Matthews and his wife to fall in love with the community.

In 1900, hoping to contribute to the economic viability of their new home, Matthews built a commercial building of native sandstone and brick on Main Street with the intent that there would be shops at street level and offices and apartments up one flight of stairs.

Why not, fellow community business leaders asked, include an opera house on the second floor? Matthews liked the idea.

The 300 seat theater opened December 3, 1906, when a touring company performed “The Lion and the Mouse.”

For over a decade, the theater hosted plays and operas and, by 1912, ranked as one of the region’s most popular entertainment venues. In the next few years, the auditorium floor doubled as a dance hall and occasional basketball court. By 1919, as stage shows graduated to motion pictures, the theater would also feature silent movie screening on a brand new 9′ x 12′ screen.

However, even with its ability to perform multiple roles, the theater fell into decline after 1930 when a new local movie house, the Vita Theater, boasted of a screen six times the size of the Matthews’ and the ability to show “talkies.” Fewer events were scheduled at the opera house. For the next few decades, it would serve as little more than a space to pack parachutes for war efforts, operate as a shooting gallery, and function as a storage room. For a brief period of time, the theater even operated as the extension of a local mortuary.

Then, in the 1940’s, Bud and Margaret Kelley bought the entire building from the Matthews family, changing the trajectory of the opera house’s path.

Margaret Kelley: Woman With a Mission

by Jan Kaus

(reprinted with permission from her 2006 article in the Matthews centennial publication)

For a lady who was not one to speak up assertively, especially with men–and at at time when most women didn’t–Margaret Kelley came out loud and clear with the message that the Matthews Opera House was not to be destroyed. Decades later, her memory was honored for that.

The Margaret Kelley Fireplace Room was officially dedicated at the opera house in Spearfish at a public reception on March 30, 2001.

“The building is owned by the Kelley family,” said Ardis Golay, then administrative director at Matthews Opera House. “And it’s because of Margaret that the opera house was not turned into anything else.”

Years ago one of the Kelley men had thoughts of turning the facility into upscale apartments, but when Margaret learned of the idea she made her feelings known.

“She said it would be over her dead body that they would destroy the opera house,” said Margaret’s daughter, Bonnie Dardis of Spearfish. And the opera house lived on.

“If it wasn’t for her, I’m afraid it would have been apartments. And I’m just so proud of her for this,” Dardis continued.

“My dad was always a frontrunner in the community, but mother was the stay-at-home person. Back then wives weren’t ever assertive with the men, and she was a very submissive English wife who spent her life raising her kids. For her to say something like that was so unusual and so incredible. It makes me so proud.”

Margaret did not live long enough to see the renovations that have been done in the past several years at the Matthews Opera House, but Dardis said her mother would be very pleased.

“For her to have this honor, … she just wouldn’t believe it! If she was a woman who had really tried to be the thing of the town, it would be a little different, but she just wouldn’t believe this,” Dardis insisted.

“She never ran for a thing in her life. She was a real lady–a very dutiful and loyal wife and attentive mother; just a great lady.”

Margaret’s likeness holds center stage in the fireplace room in the form of a portrait painted by a family friend.

Matthews Unleashes Hissing

by Kris Garlick-Beaty

(reprinted with permission from her 2006 article in the Matthews centennial publication)

The date was 1956-57, and melodramas were taking downtown Spearfish by storm.

Listening to Louise Smock and Lorie Velte recall the “good old days” at the Matthews Opera House is like rummaging through a montage of 1950s melodrama memories and a whole lot of laughter. My, how things have changed.

“I remember when….” one would say. Then the other would top it with, “and do you remember when…?”

The date was 1956-1957, and melodramas were taking downtown Spearfish by storm, staging four nights a week.

Lorie’s husband, the late Wally Velte, played the piano–not just any piano– he’d place thumb tacks on the piano hammers to give it a honky-tonk effect.

“He would earn $150 a month and a share of the profits,” Lorie said, “playing about 20 hours a week.

“It was fun,” the retired nurse added with a chuckle, “a true melodrama. The college kids would even throw peanuts at Wally (a voice and music instructor at Black Hills State College).”

That was when the cast referred to themselves as the Old Spearfish Opera Company. It was tough at first, according to Louise, wife of the late Richard “Dick” Tarlton Smock who was killed in the Korean War. The theater had to be cleaned up.

“We had to chase the pigeons and bats out,” she said. “They were in the men’s restroom and we figured as long as they stay there,” she joked. “No, we sealed up the holes.”

The lady artists of the company request that the gentlemen in the audience control themselves. Whistles and other demonstrations, however, will be graciously acknowledged.

1958 Old Spearfish Opera Company playbill

The women bragged about the handmade costumes. They were marvelous costumes, they said, made by Marie Kasson.

“Before the performance, we’d drive around town in Gary Cundy’s old Model T with no top,” said Louise. “In costume, we’d draw quite a crowd back to the performance.”

Louise portrayed Annie Martin in Murder in the Old Red Barn, and Peach Blossom, her favorite role, in Under the Gas Light. She was the “vamp” in the latter, which she deemed to be so much fun.

“The audience would cheer the hero and boo the villain,” she said.

“Three of the men (in the opera company) went on to be priests or pastors. That’s how good we were–or maybe we were that bad,” she quipped.

Fast forward fifty years and Louise was still involved. She directed many productions and performed in several plays including three of the Nunsense comedies. The first Nunsense, Louise remembered, was a coordinated effort with her daughter, Hoodie Smock.

“She played in it,” said Louise. “It sold out every time.”

In 2006, leading up to the Matthews centennial celebration, Nunsense was revived. Original cast member Lisa Langer directed the musical hit. And, back for an encore, Louise choreographed the tap dancing.

My how things have changed, or have they?

Throwing peanuts is encouraged; but vegetables, overripe fruit, and their like, will not be tolerated as missiles. If you are certain that you will hit the actors, fire away. The drops, however, are valuable

1958 Old Spearfish Opera Company playbill

Summer Theater Flourishes

by Bill Crawford

(reprinted from his July 15, 1966 newspaper column)

There’s little doubt that summer musical theaters are a boon to any city’s economy during the hot months. Tourists, no longer satisfied with TV re-runs, are attracted by the lively musicals being staged throughout the country.

Darrell Woolwine, a former Lawton High School drama and stagecraft teacher, attests to the fact that summer theaters are good for tourist business. His summer baby is the Stagecoach Theater, a college, community theater nestled in the picturesque Black Hills of South Dakota.

Woolwine, a journalism-drama coach at Black Hills State College, realized the potential in summer theater last year when he viewed the Black Hills Passion Play. After the snow cleared in April, a college crew set out to refurbish a dilapidated Opera House. Basic theater stage equipment was installed and the group was in business.

Woolwine opened his season late last month with “Everybody Loves Opal,” John Patrick’s popular comedy, which played to packed houses. The show alternated with the Passion Play, giving tourists visiting the Mt. Rushmore area an opportunity to see both productions.

“Calamity Jane,” a rip-snortin’ musical set in the wild and wooly days of Deadwood, S.D., circa 1876, appropriately is scheduled next on the Stagecoach Theater stage, in August.

A Passion for Storytelling:

Playwright Paul Higbee an opera house tradition

by Jan Kaus and Joanna Mechaley

(excerpt reprinted with permission from their 2006 article in the Matthews centennial publication)

Local playwright Paul Higbee’s “Phantom of Matthews Opera House” first thrilled audiences in 1976 and continues to delight as it reprises in the historic theater every few years.

Higbee wrote the show specifically for the Matthews Opera House and it played for eight seasons. It saw a reival in 1991, featuring much of the original cast, and again in 1994. Since then, it has been revised many times on the Matthews stage featuring talent drawn from the Spearfish community as well as Black Hills State University theater students.

The initial crew included Spearfish actors Chuck Haas, Deb Christofferson, Kurt Bauer, Nancy Horn, Jon Steven Wiley, and Janet Higbee.

“I guess the vision was, ‘Let’s do a show that really makes use of the whole auditorium–Matthews Opera House as Matthews Opera House–starring Matthews Opera House,'” explained Higbee.

“And then, of course, everybody was talking in those days about ‘Is Matthews Opera House haunted?’ It was well before restoration and it was an old, creaky building.

“Throwing all of those elements in there, we came up with the show.”

Audiences responded well to the show despite the less-than-perfect conditions of the theater. Until recent years, the theater lacked many modern cmforts such as padded seats and air conditioning. Audiences nonetheless endured the conditions to see quality theater. Tourists commonly traveled on buses all the way from Yellowstone National Park to catch an evening performance of “Phantom.”

“There’s a challenge. Take a tired group of bus riders and it’s 90 degrees in the opera house, and make them forget that,” said Higbee.

The success of the show came from the dynamics of the cast and crew as a whole.

“In the 1970s everybody had a lot more time. It seemed like we had a lot of people in the ’70s that knew they were on course for a professional career and they would take a summer off in order to pursue an experience like this.”

There’s a challenge. Take a tired group of bus riders and it’s 90 degrees in the opera house, and make them forget that.

Paul Higbee

Of the original cast members, several have gone on to develop professional theater careers. The cast reconvened for the 1991 revival and again in 1994. Many were traveling from as far away as Texas and California. During this time period, the opera house was in the thick of renovation and the actors wanted to do something to help.

“That shows you the attachment people have to this place,” said Higbee.

Reviving a Classic

In 1966, Black Hills State College students stepped forward with “Stagecoach Theater,” a play series that would launch a decades-long cleanup campaign throughout the community.

“The opera house was a real mess when we moved in,” shared Darrell Woowine, then director of the theatre at Black Hills State College. “It was being used as a storage area, and furniture was stacked to the ceiling. Dust covered everything, and was so thick that it turned to mud when you tried to scrub it away. Water seeped through the ceiling, and there were several pigeons living there.”

Through the late 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, actors, hotels, and Main Street businesses joined forced to restore the historic gem. A grant facilitated by the college helped purchase paint and bus tours were encouraged to route through Spearfish, tempting travelers with the offer of live summer theater.

Efforts to renew the building, however, would require both time and significant funding. While performers found the space charming (“It’s a fun place to do shows because it is so old and has so much class,” said one summer theater veteran), visitors were often taken by surprise, as recounted by historian Paul Higbee.

A young couple stood in front of Matthews Opera House in Spearfish one evening last summer, looking somewhat disillusioned. “Is this it?” asked the woman.

They were out-of-state visitors on vacation in the Black Hills and had read that a play was to be performed in the “historic Matthews Opera House.” It sounded intriguing–they were as anxious to see the old theater as the play. They had expected a quaint, ornate building. But they found the theater entrance to be nothing more than a single door in a sort of crack between an ice cream shop and a drug store.

“We stepped inside the door, and there were these steps leading up to the second floor of this old building,” the man later recalled. “It wasn’t exactly inviting. Bare light bulbs stuck out of the ceiling, and the stairs creaked. We though the theatre was going to be a dump. But when we got up there we were really surprised.”

“Theater Exterior Decieves Passers-by,” by Paul Higbee

Slowly, opera house loyalists set the stage for the facility’s rebirth. Community actors staged shows in the local high school with ticket sales going to support restoration efforts.

Eventually, enough funds were raised to not only replace broken windows and install air conditioning and heating, but also make the building compliant with current safety standards.

Then, in the mid-80’s, the Kelley family expressed their commitment by granting permission to expand the theater’s footprint to include offices, a lobby and dressing rooms. Apartments and offices on the north side of the theater were gutted, and the space was flooded with light as walls were removed, exposing large windows in the formerly dim entrance.

These efforts would bring history full circle as Tom Matthews, descendant of the building’s namesake, returned with his wife Theresa to assist with restoration efforts. Calling on Tom’s experience with paint and plaster schemes, the couple repaired bullet-riddled mouldings and revealed the original paint color of the walls.

Recently, the Matthews has expanded its commitment to the arts by opening a downstairs gallery to facilitate visual arts programming. The stage features live theater and music events as well as lectures from historians, artists, and authors. By offering a bevy of free and equitable programming such as children’s theater camps, school outreach, and artists workshops, the Matthews continues to give back to the community that has given so much to them.

All the world is a stage…

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