Friday, December 20, 2013

Tom Matthews' Personal Touch in Rennovating Matthews Opera House

On Dec 2, 2013, the Spearfish Area Historical Society meeting was held at the Matthews Opera House.  Fifty-seven people came out on a night when the roads were icy and the snow was flying.  Tom Matthews shared his personal history and his and the community efforts to renovate the Matthews Opera House fifteen years ago.   Paul Higbee introduced a 10 minute video of the history of the Matthews Opera House; the video was commissioned for the 2006 Matthews Opera House centennial celebration and was also shown on SD Public TV.   TIE Media Services produced the video with Paul Higbee, Julia Monczunski and Ryan Phillips participating.
The Matthews Opera House was built and owned by Tom Matthews' great-grandfather, Thomas N. Matthews, and owned by the family until 1946 when the building was sold to Mike Kelly.   Tom grew up in and around the building.  George Wagner was the caretaker when Tom was a young boy when the building was no longer used for its original purpose as a theatrical stage.   Instead, it was used for various extraneous activities such as roller skating by the light of a single 60 watt bulbs dangling high up from the center dome, a dance studio, dance hall, gymnastics, basketball court, and even a shooting gallery where the target was hung up on stage.  Tom remembered many fun and rambunctious times in the Matthews.

A major part of Wyoming history was the Johnson County Cattle War in April, 1892 between the homesteaders and open range ranchers.  After the war, ranchers were in need of someone to ship their cattle out and Thomas N. Matthews provided that service with a team of cowboys.  The profits allowed Thomas to expand his business interests into Spearfish and Sundance from his main ranch in Gillette, WY.  The idea for a theater came from a women's group where one of the women had seen the Crystal Theater in Gonzales, TX, the town known for the first skirmish of the Mexican American War.  The Matthews Opera House building is frequently called the "Matthews Block" because the original adjacent sandstone building was called "the block" and the name stuck when the theater was built.
Thomas Matthews originally paid $50,000 to build the Opera House which opened on Dec 3, 1906, with a political farce-comedy called "The Lion and the Mouse".  For its first 10 years, many traveling repertory companies paid repeated visits to packed houses of 300 people.   By 1917, "moving pictures" came in to the Opera House and live performances became less frequent.

By the mid 1980’s 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 owner Mike Kelly with a 95 year, rent free agreement that the restoration would proceed on a timely basis. The first restoration phase was completed by 1989. Work continued into the 90’s and was completed by the end of 2006, the official centennial date of the opening of the Matthews Opera House. 
The renovation itself took a tremendous effort by many, many volunteers.  Practically everything needed repair.   Tom Matthews and his wife, Theresa, had started a doll hospital in Indianapolis when they lived there to attend college.   The experience they gained in antique repair came in to play in helping renovate the Opera House.  The center dome was painted by Dick Dubois and Theresa Matthews.  All reliefs were originally made of plaster of Paris and easily crumbled.  The right side box was badly damaged and Tom had the left box removed so that it could be carefully replicated to create a new right box.  Tom also found the original color "red" in the wall just to the right of the metal column on stage.   The floor was sanded and refinished with good results, but now the floor is so thin that it can never be sanded again. 

Today the Matthews Opera House hosts live theater, staged musical productions and many local events.  Today's seating maximum is 270 compared to the original narrower seating to hold 300.