The Blaine County Journal News-Opinion - We've Got The County Covered

New Chinook Opera House deemed a "Grand Success"


July 15, 2020

Lesley Zellmer, one of the owners of the building where the Chinook Opera House is located, shows how the old theater and ballroom was accessed directly from the street. Originally the stairway was open from the street. About halfway up the stairs, two doors blocked access to the facility at a stairway landing. A "back entrance" served as a fire escape to the alley but was sealed off years ago.

In November, 1903, the new Chinook Opera House hosted a grand opening ball that attracted 500 guests. A couple of weeks before the grand opening, the "Chinook Opinion" described the new facility as "...worthy of our pride and would be a creditable in a city of the population of Great Falls." The writer noted, "...the residents of Chinook and vicinity have deplored the fact that we had not a theatre or other place of amusement worthy of a large and wealthy population."

A writer described the new Opera House as " every way modern and up-to-date." The stage, framed by a stylish Proscenium arch, measured 20' by 20' with wings 12' by 20' and was lighted by a sophisticated electrical system. Under the stage were three "splendid" dressing rooms. At the back of the ballroom, along the east wall, three spacious offices overlook the street. A "dress circle," or balcony, is along the east wall of the ballroom and would accommodate about 100 chairs. With the ballroom and the dress circle, 500 guests could be comfortably seated or twelve "sets of dancers" could waltz the evening away.

The old Opera House is located atop the two-story brick building at 219 Indiana Street, now home to the Treasure State Title Company. The idea for the entertainment venue was credited to Stephen Carver, then President of the First National Bank. The bank occupied the north street level portion of the new building and Frank D. Boyle, a clothier, moved into the south side. The clothier eventually became Kuhr's Clothing. The bank moved in 1963 to a new building the corner of Indiana and 4th Streets. The same year Johnson Printing bought the building from the bank and it was owned by the newspaper's several owners until it sold in 2017.

Steve and Lesley Zellmer bought the building in 2017 and remodeled part of the lower story where the old bank was located. Zellmer's Treasure State Title business operates from the north half of the lower floor and Lodestar Land and Home real estate agent Cassie Johnson recently moved in to upgraded quarters in the south portion. Describing the "retro" look of the title office, Lesley Zellmer said, "We restored the basic footprint of the bank when it occupied the building." An original bank counter, tin ceiling and existing walk-in vault are incorporated into the design to capture some of the original features of the space.

The Opera House hosted events through the mid-1940's

A writer for the "Opinion described the grand opening as a "total eclipse of all its predecessors...." The Opera House hosted lectures, balls and dances, traveling theatrical groups and school graduations. A major annual event for several years was the Non-Ah Float Association's ball that welcomed out of state wool buyers to the area each fall. In 1904 the Opera House showed the first motion pictures in town. And before the new courthouse was completed 1914, a murder case was held at the entertainment center.

In 1915 Griffin Hall (now the site of the Blaine County Museum in Chinook) was completed as a place for recreation. The new facility with a stage, dressing rooms and spacious area for seating or dancing took some major events away from the Opera House.

The Opera House continued to host many 'private' events and new uses were found for the space. Larry Wisch, of Chinook, told about three vets who came back to Chinook after World War II looking for work. With living space hard to come by, the three 'camped' for a time in the dressing rooms under the stage. Harry Burns, a local attorney, used one of the three upstairs offices overlooking Indiana Street.

Perhaps one of the most famous events hosted at the Opera House was an evening lecture in April, 1910, by Carrie Nation who was described in a "Chinook Opinion" story as a "famed temperance agitator and lecturer." Nation was best known for her attacks throughout the country on saloons and taverns with a hatchet in one hand and a Bible in the other. She described herself as "a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what He doesn't like." It was reported that the next morning she held a rally downtown in Chinook before leaving for her next speaking engagement. There was no report on how the morning rally turned out.

Future plans for the Chinook Opera House

This photograph shows the stage at the west end of the Chinook Opera House. Behind the wainscoting below the stage were electric footlights. The door to the left and a similar one on the right, access three dressing rooms below the stage. The ballroom floor could accommodate 400 chairs plus another 100 in the balcony at the east end of the building.

Some roof leaks and time have taken their toll on the Opera House. The tongue and groove flooring has warped. The plaster, in many areas, succumbed to moisture and the power is disconnected. Still, the beauty of the remaining wood, the soaring ceilings and the feeling of a once elegant place is still present.

Within the last thirty years two efforts were considered to restore the old ballroom for public use again. Larry Wisch described how a group of locals, in the 1980's, approached the owners of the building with the idea of restoring the ballroom but idea was rejected. Linda Sharples, who with husband Bob was operating the Chinook Inn in the 1990's said, "There was some state tourism funds that might have been available to help promote tourism using the Opera House, but nothing ever came of that idea."

Lesley Zellmer, one of the new owners of the building, said, "Our dream is to restore the old ballroom in some manner but we have no immediate plans for renovation." She added, "When our three young daughters saw the stage they said, "Can we put on shows?" Maybe that generation will find new purpose for the century old Chinook Opera House.


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