The Matthews Opera House is a cultural gem still standing in its original Main Street location more than 100 years after construction. Thousands of performers have graced the Matthews historic stage over the last century. The Matthews continues to inspire and connect the community of Spearfish, enriching lives now and into the future.
Opened in 1906 the Matthews Opera House was the setting for stage productions and traveling shows through the 1930’s.
With echoes of the 1876 Black Hills Gold Rush behind them, many towns like Spearfish yearned for fine arts and high-class, professional entertainment. In 1900, local rancher Thomas Matthews decided to erect an opera house in Spearfish. According to family legend, Matthews attended a performance at an opera house out of state and, unsatisfied with his seating, vowed he would build a facility ensuring him a good seat.
The two-story Matthews Opera House officially opened December 3, 1906 in the original location where it still stands today. The first production was a political farce-comedy called “The Lion and the Mouse.”
The popular Opera House hosted stage plays, operas, and Shakespeare performances throughout the next decade. Many traveling repertory companies paid repeated visits to the Matthews. However, as the decade drew to a close in 1919, competition from “moving pictures” developed in Spearfish and fewer live performances were scheduled.
Renamed the “Princess Theater” in 1920, the Opera House ushered in movie showings and occasional live plays. When a new theater was created in town for “talkies,” or movies with sound in 1929, the Opera House then transitioned into a community space for meetings, a basketball court, and storage. During World War II, the Matthews’ large indoor space was ideal for rolling parachutes and served as a shooting gallery. The elegance of the interior faded as the building fell into general disuse by the mid 1950s.
Efforts to revive the Matthews began in the 1950s, and set the stage for a rebirth in the 80s.
Local college students attempted to revitalize the theater with a series of melodramas in 1956-57. Community support was high, yet graduation of cast members and financial concerns brought a quick end to the venture. Once more the Opera House went dark and continued to deteriorate.
By 1966, the Opera House had been little used for nearly a decade, when another band of intrepid students from Black Hills State College formed a theater company for the summer months and began a small scale renovation of the interior. Known as “Stagecoach Theater,” the students’ efforts were longer lasting than 10 years earlier. What soon became a summer favorite, “The Phantom of the Matthews Opera House,” written by Paul Higbee, opened in 1976. Summer audiences continued to grow through the 80s, but the conditions of the Opera House were anything but comfortable. The building wasn’t air-conditioned and there was only one single public toilet.
By the mid 1980s, it was determined that serious restoration work would be needed to preserve and protect the Opera House if it were to reach its centennial year. The Spearfish Downtown Association took the first step and formed the non-profit Matthews Opera House Society. The building was leased from current owner Mike Kelly with a 99-year, rent-free agreement that the restoration would proceed on a timely basis. The first restoration phase was completed by 1989.
Restoration work continued into the 1990s and was completed by the end of 2006, the official centennial date of the opening of the Matthews Opera House.
Today, the Matthews continues to offer a robust bill of productions on its beautiful and historic stage. The Spearfish Area Council for the Arts and Humanities merged with Matthews Opera House in 1998, and a facility expansion soon followed. “Arts Center” was added to the Matthews Opera House name and a street-level gallery now showcases the visual arts. The Matthews continues to expand connection with the community outside the doors of the historic Opera House through events and programs including the annual Festival in the Park, outreach with schools, and partnerships for economic development. After nearly losing this historic landmark at several points throughout history, the Matthews Opera House stands today as a visible reminder of the commitment of the City of Spearfish and the community to the arts and to history. Truly a cultural hub, the Matthews Opera House and Arts Center endures as an anchor of the Spearfish community.