Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 1989 | Features

Of Vanishing Opera Houses and a Crooning Coach

By Lynda Leidiger

Imagine Hayden Fry on the stage of Hancher Auditorium, wrapped in a kimono and warbling, “On a tree by a river a little tom-tit / Sang ‘Willow, titwillow, titwillow.’”

A comparable scene regaled Iowa City audiences 90 years ago, when Alden A. Knipe—the the Hawkeyes’ head football coach—sang a leading role in The Mikado at the Coldren Opera House.

Alden Arthur Knipe had been an All-American and captain of the football team at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned an M.D. In 1897 he moved to Iowa City to set up his medical practice. The following year, at the age of 28, Knipe became head football coach for the University of Iowa, then called the State University of Iowa. The job of coaching the track team was added to his athletic assignments in 1899.

It turned out to be a banner year for Iowa athletics. The track team won the state championship that spring. In the fall, the football team celebrated its first undefeated season; opponents scored only five points against them. Small wonder that in 1900 Knipe was appointed the university’s first director of physical culture—Hayden Fry and Bump Elliott rolled into one.

But, football was only one of Knipe’s talents. In addition to his medical practice, he was involved with various campus musical groups and directed the S.U.I. Men’s Glee Club. And he did more than direct the choir.

An accomplished singer, Knipe drew rave reviews for his portrayal of Ko-Ko, Lord High Executioner in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta The Mikado. The production was mounted by a group the Iowa State Press referred to simply as “the home opera company,” a mixture of people from the community and the university. However, the opening night performance on September 21, 1899 was a benefit for S.U.I. athletics. The athletes themselves supported the endeavor with enthusiasm.

The Vidette-Reporter, a predecessor of The Daily Iowan, related that “a number of seats in the parquet were reserved for the football team, who exercised their lungs with S.U.I. yells and songs before the curtain rose.” The reviewer pronounced the production “a decided success.”

Other local critics concurred, but none in purpler prose than the writer for The Republican. Headlined “Masterful Mikado, the review proclaimed:

photo of Alden KnipeAlden A. Knipe

“If greater versatility can be desired than that which permits the same individual to coruscate in a firmament of stars as physician, surgeon, athlete, trainer, church choir director, musician and comedian, insatiable must be the appetite for glory of him who is moved by that desire. Dr. Knipe’s Ko-Ko was a finished piece of work, excruciatingly funny, and deliciously sung. His ‘stage business’ captured the audience over and over, and his love scenes and songs with Katisha were beyond criticism. If they culminated in convulsing cast as well as audience, who can blame the actor?”

Best of all, the benefit fattened the athletic department’s coffers by $361.

Off the stage as well as on, Knipe’s star was rising. He coached the Hawkeyes for a second undefeated season in 1900, but it would prove to be Iowa’s last perfect record until 1921.

Though Iowa lost three games in 1901, ending with a 50-0 drubbing by Michigan, faith in Coach Knipe hardly seemed to waver. “Dr. Knipe, as coach, showed the same versatility in planning plays that has made him famous, and, because he did not produce a winning team, everything can be laid to circumstance and not the coach,” the Hawkeye yearbook staunchly maintained.

By the end of 1902, however, the Hawkeye staff was less inclined to be generous.

“The uncrossed goal line has become one of the sacred memories of the past. Bonfires and dances by white-robed students are not seen on the streets as of yore…. To be brief, the team of 1902 suffered about all the disasters that ever befell a football team,” the 1904 entry reads. It goes on to chronicle the first five games, ending abruptly with the excuse, “We refrain from mentioning any more…for want of space.”

The biggest unmentionable was surely Game Six, when Michigan handed Iowa its worst defeat to date: 107-0.

The time had come, it seems, for Coach Knipe to coruscate elsewhere. He resigned, and John G. Chalmers led the 1903 team to a more respectable 902 season—though Michigan still humiliated the Hawks, 75-0.

Despite the decline of his fortunes on the gridiron, Knipe went on to add yet another star to his glittering firmament: he became an author. One edition of Who Was Who lists 32 books written from 1910 to 1931, either by Knipe alone or with his wife, Emily. Many of the titles—such as Polly Trotter, Patriot (1916) and Bunny Plays the Game (1925)—suggest that they were written for children. Only one, Captain of the Eleven (1910), hints at autobiography. The Knipes had an address on New York’s fashionable Sutton Place when the former Iowa coach died in 1950, a month shy of his 80th birthday.

By then, the Coldren Opera House had been closed for over 35 years. In the years following that memorable Mikado, the curtain rose on an assortment of entertainment from the sublime (Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Merchant of Venice in 1910) to the ridiculous (the local Eastern Star Chapter’s Three Little Kittens of the Land of Pie in 1903). But never again did a Hawkeye football coach grace the stage—at least, not in a singing role.

Like typical opera houses of the time, the Coldren was host to a variety of activities besides performances by touring companies. There were high school plays, commencement exercises, lectures, and concerts.

In some towns, the opera house resembled today’s community center. The Columbia Opera House in Cascade, for instance, was the scene of dances, church fairs, Catholic masses (while a church was under construction), and even the Dubuque County Farmers Institute.

The heyday of the opera house was from the 1870s until World War I. Just after the turn of the century, the flourishing theater scene warranted at least one weekly newspaper devoted to opera houses and touring companies. The Opera House Reporter was published in Estherville, Iowa, ostensibly “for opera house managers throughout the northwest.” This included Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Kansas, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, and Indian Territory. It was also a clearinghouse for agents and acts in search of bookings. Opera houses vied for “A-1” acts by boasting of commodious dressing rooms, a good piano, a manager who was a “live wire,” or the community’s economic health. In 1904, a manader in Pocahontas, Iowa, hoped to lure performers by announcing, “Crop prospects good.”

A-1 acts came in all varieties. There were melodramas with cautionary titles like Why Girls Leave Home and Her Only Sin. There were comedians, minstrels, magicians, and boxing midgets. The manager in Lowden wanted “a good medicine show”—perhaps like the Lyndon Vaudeville and Modern Remedy Company then playing in Paullina.

Some houses booked A-1 acts but could quite accommodate them. In Fort Dodge, a lion escaped during a circus performance, charging through the audience and out into the woods, where townspeople and circus employees captured him later.

In What Cheer, John Philip Sousa’s band overflowed the stage, with musicians standing in the rear entrance. That same stage was judged too small for the climactic chariot race in Ben Hur, so the show was never booked. Neither was a troupe called “The Boston Belles”—for different reasons. A newspaper account explained, “The beauty and enticing qualities of these rare specimens of feminine extracts of Mother Eve might cause disappointments or broken hearts among our young men.”

Occasionally, amid the A-1 boxing midgets and medicine shows, the avid opera house patron might even see an opera.

Unquestionably, the grandiose term “opera house” was rather inaccurate. That was intentional, according to George Glenn, a professor of theater history at the University of Northern Iowa.

“The name was a kind of camouflage,” he said. “It gave a sort of legitimacy to the theater. ‘Opera house’ was cultural—‘theater’ was a den of iniquity.”

For the last six years, he and Richard Poole, a professor at Briar Cliff College, have been gathering material for a book about Iowa’s opera houses. They’ve identified over 1,100 that once existed—so far.

“Every once in a while you still hear about that room above the hardware store that used to be an opera house,” Glenn said.

In Iowa City, it’s that room above the dentist, the bank, and the Italian restaurant.

The Coldren Opera House, originally Clark & Hill’s Opera House, occupied the second and third floors of a block from 202-212 S. Clinton St.—coincidentally, just two blocks south of Dr. Knipe’s office at 22½ S. Clinton. On the first floor was Clark & Hill’s Iowa City Bank, whose vault a Daily Press reporter touted in 1877 as “the despair of burglars and the hope of depositors.” Bank owners Ezekiel Clark and Thomas Hill built the opera house with the help of another bank officer, John P. Coldren, who bought it and renamed it in 1897.

With its red brick façade and charcoal gray mansard, the Opera House Block is now on the National Register of Historic Places in Iowa. Only about 300 of the state’s opera houses still stand. About a third, like the Englert Theatre where Sarah Bernhardt played in 1915, survived by making the transition to movie theaters. Only a handful—including ones in Dubuque, What Cheer, Elkader, Cresco, and Albia—havebeen renovated to something resembling their former glory, Glenn said.

Iowa City's Coldren Opera HouseIowa City's Coldren Opera House

Iowa City’s opera house was reputed to be glorious indeed.

Its opening on November 6, 1877 was declared a civic holiday. The elegant theater featured gas jet lighting and steam heat. Its 30-foot ceiling was embellished with portraits of Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, and Meyerbeer; Shakespeare’s face loomed above the stage. Patrons sat in tilting chairs of perforated wood. Seating capacity was 1,050, with room for 400 more in the aisles—this was apparently before fire codes.

The grand opening program was How Women Love and Van the Virginian. A list of the opera house’s permanent sets suggests the theatrical genres most popular at the time. There were: chambers in the Louis XV style, modern chambers, a rustic kitchen, agarden and rustic cottages, a street perspective, a street house, water landscapes, and a Bastillian prison.

“Description cannot do it justice,” the Daily Press gushed. “McVickar’s is the only Chicago theatre better than it.”

More than 100 years after that article appeared, one long-time Iowa City resident, “I was in McVickar’s once, and I agree.”

Irving Weber, who has written extensively about Iowa City history, isn’t old enough to remember Knipe’s Ko-Ko. Now 88, he was born in the winter of the coach’s second championship season. He does, however, have vivid memories of the opera house.

“When our Methodist church burned in 1906, we had church services in the opera ouse,” he recalled. As a child, he met with his Sunday School class upstairs in the horseshoe-shaped gallery.

He also remembered the saloon next door.

“Saloons were dens of iniquity. The only time a woman ever went in was to grab her husband. I had to go in there to sell papers,” Weber said, “and my mother always told me, ‘Hold your breath.’”

Weber said the Coldren closed in 1911 or 1912, and the Englert opened in 1913. The opera house space was remodeled and rented out. One tenant Weber remembers is the University Triangle Club, housed on the third floor; he was a part-time janitor there in 1918.

Gone were the days when an audience could be terrorized by a lion on the loose, or convulsed by a crooning coach in a kimono. Across the country, opera houses were closing their doors, reflecting the changing face of the nation.

“At one time there were 500 touring companies. The railroads went everywhere,” George Glenn said. “There was no radio or TV, no paved roads. The opera house was the only game in town.”

Preserving what remains of that era is part of what drives him in his continued quest for Iowa’s vanishing opera houses.

“I’m sure there are more out there to be found. As time goes by, they blow down, burn down, get torn down,” he said. “Iowa has forgotten what a tremendous theater heritage it had.”

Lynda Leidiger, a 1986 graduate of the Writers’ Workshop, was recently an artist in residence at Doane College in Nebraska.