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Looking for answers: who drew the 'bronc rider mural' in the old Opera House?


September 30, 2020

The line drawing shows an enhanced view of the 'bronc rider mural' on the wall of a dressing room in the old Opera House in Chinook. In the photo Lesley Zellmer, one of the co-owners of the building that houses the Opera House, stands beside the pencil drawing to show its size. The Opera House opened in 1903 upstairs over the present Treasure State Title Company and Lodestar Land and Home real estate office in the 200 block of Indiana Street in Chinook.

Over the last few years alert "Journal" readers have provided missing information to me for stories in the newspaper. Most recently, a Shelby subscriber identified the artist of the mural in the old Kuhr Clothing Store in downtown Chinook. Other readers have kindly pointed out errors I made in my research or conclusions, giving me a chance to make corrections. Now comes a new mystery and I need some help in solving it-it involves the Chinook Opera House

A short history of the Opera House

In July of this year I did a story about the Chinook Opera House. The two story brick building that housed the Opera House is on the west side of Indiana Street in the downtown area, it was completed in 1903. The Opera House was located on the second floor of the building and was the first real entertainment venue in the rapidly growing prairie town.

Downstairs was the new home of the First National Bank, on the northside, and Boyle's Clothing store on the south portion of the first level (the clothing store eventually became Kuhr's Clothing Store which later moved one building south to a new one story building). During the last two years the lower level has been remodeled to house Treasure State Title Insurance and Lodestar Land and Home, a real estate business.

The Opera House includes a large open room with a stage at the west end and a balcony along the east end. The open room could be set for dances or banquets with tables. For stage performances chairs could be added for the audience. Along the outside west wall, facing the street, there are three offices. The offices were used for several years after the larger hall fell in to disuse.

Below and behind the stage is a suite of dressing rooms for use by performers at the Opera House. The suite includes several rooms that were large enough to store costumes and stage accessories as well as provide spaces for performers to dress and apply stage makeup. There's even a bathroom with a shower and commode, pretty up date for a building more than a century old.

At some point in time a new entertainment venue (Griffin Hall-what is now the Blaine County Museum) took some of the business from the Opera House. The Opera House was still used for private events but larger productions went to the new facility. In 1912, just before the present Blaine County courthouse was completed, the Krass murder trial was held in the Opera House. The street side offices upstairs continued to be used. Attorney Harry Burns had his office there during the 1920's and 30's. Gambles (a department store) down on the street level, at times used the space to store inventory.

Interestingly, the dressing room space, because it had both water and electricity, was at times used as rental living space. Larry Wisch, who has lived in and around Chinook for many years, told me, "At the end of World War II it was hard to rent living space in Chinook with so many veterans coming back from the military. Hobe Richmond told me that he, Art Dronen and Blondie Austad, all veterans, lived in the dressing room area of the Opera House for a time while they looked for work and got settled." Art's widow, Maxine, told me she remembered the third vet of the group was not Richmond but Murdo MacLean. Likely others lived in the dressing rooms over time as well.

Who drew the 'bronc rider mural' in the Opera House?

There is a large line drawing on one of the plaster walls of an open dressing room under the Opera House's stage. The drawing is about 10 by 10 feet, done with what appears to be a carpenter's pencil. (see attached drawing and photo). The drawing is not signed. I am curious to learn about the drawing: who drew it; when did they draw it; why was it drawn and was it just an outline for a more elegant painting/drawing or is it complete as is?

Asked whether any of the vets might have been artistic, Maxine Dronen said, "Not as far as I know." Other locals who knew of the vets didn't think any of them did the art. The fact the drawing was done with a very thick pencil (like a carpenter's pencil) suggests it might have been a workman doing a job at the Opera House, a stagehand with a performing group or maybe a performer who was just passing time and decided to 'decorate' an otherwise bland wall. It might even be the 'tag' of some early artist who happened to be in the area and wanted to leave evidence of their visit.

How to share your info about the 'bronc rider mural'

If you can shed light on this local piece of folk art, please contact Steve Edwards at the "Blaine County Journal." You can leave a message at 357-3573 or email to and I'll get back in touch with you. I'm looking forward to solving this "art mystery." And just so readers know, I have a couple of other art mysteries I'll be sharing in future articles. Thanks for your interest and potential help.


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