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 tp ranch there, then kept the ranch but moved his residence to Spearfish when his wife become ill. It didn’t take long for Matthews and his wife to fall in love with the community.

In 1900, hoping to contribute o 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

For a lady wig was not one to speak up assertively, 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 at a public reception in 2001.

Years ago, when one of the Kelley men thought of turning the facility into upscale apartments, Margaret 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.”

Margaret did not live long enough to see the renovations, 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 portrait, painted by a family friend, holds center stage in the lobby.

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


Matthews Unleashes Hissing. By Kris Garlick-Beaty

In the mid-50’s, a local group arranged to stage summer melodrama at the opera house. The program lasted just two summers, but moved the opera house into the consciousness of a new generation.

Listening to Louise Smock and Lorie Welte 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. “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 affect.

“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 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 the. “vamp” Peach Blossom, her favorite role, in Under the Gas Light.

“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.

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.


Summer Theater Flourishes. By Bill Crawford

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.

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.

Encouragement to the actors in the form of cheering, applauding, hissing, booing, stamping of feet, whistling, sobbing and gasping will be enthusiastically tolerated by the management. however The throwing of sarsaparilla bottles, ear trumpets, small change, hats, caps, shoes, truck garden products – especially over-ripe varieties thereof – crutches, theatre seats, garters, knives, lighting fixtures, canes, bustles, and small children is frowned upon by management.



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,” Darrel Woolwine, 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 on summer theater veteran, visitors were often taken by surprise, as recounted by historian Paul Higbee in his article “Theater Exterior Deceives Passers-by.”

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

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 Teresa to assist with restoration efforts. Calling on Tom’s experience with paint and plaster schemes, the couple repaired bullet-riddles 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 equitable programming such as children’s theater camps, school outreach, and artists workshops, the Matthews continues to give back to the community that has go even so much to them.

Hear From Those Involved

“It is a rare accomplishment to have a theater still being used as a theater (100 years later.) We came close a couple times to losing the Matthews Opera House.” – Paul Higbee, historian

The drama

“There’s no experience comparable to live theater. Whether you’re on stage or watching from the audience, I think that there’s magic. That might be cliche, but I think that there’s real magic to it.” – Larry Blake, actor

The magic

“The best times in theater happen when the cast, the script, the director and the audience all seem to come together … like an extra moment in time that wasn’t meant to be but is. Then there is a synergy and the creation becomes more than the sum of the parts. That’s when it’s all worth it, and if you’ve ever had it, you keep trying and trying, hoping you’ll find it again.” – Sandi Hogan, actress

The education

“I got started when I went to see a show and saw David (Whitlock) running around. I looked at the sets and thought that might be fun and the next week I went in to volunteer. The best part for me is working with the people. We all became good friends. It’s good to have a job working with the people and enjoying what you’re doing at the same time.” – Joe Ceritelli, technician

The one man show

” It’s a lot of work. As an actor, everything you’ve got is laid out there. If you fowl up, there’s nowhere to hide. On the other hand, it is ultra-high exhilaration. You’ve got a whole house and they’re all looking at you. The fun part is, it’s you and you alone for 90 minutes. It they’re laughing, they’re laughing at you or something you did.” – Alan Finkle, actor/director

The family

“Truly, some of my dearest friendships have evolved from relationships developed in the theater. In fact, I met my husband on the opera house stage. So often I have heard actors reminisce about the shows, the roles, the experiences they have had in the theater.” – Joanna Mechaley, actress/director



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