Piper's Opera House celebrates 120 years

Sam Folio stands in front of a  promotional poster for "Uncle Tom's Cabin" at Piper's Opera House in VIrginia City Sunday.  BRAD HORN Nevada Appeal

Sam Folio stands in front of a promotional poster for "Uncle Tom's Cabin" at Piper's Opera House in VIrginia City Sunday. BRAD HORN Nevada Appeal

In its 120 years, Piper's Opera House, the "Grand Dame" of the Comstock, has played gracious host to everything from genteel Victorian theater productions of Shakespeare to bare-knuckled, whiskey-powered, take-all-comer heavyweight brawls featuring the likes of legendary boxer John L. Sullivan.

From the most oceanic of booms to the leanest of busts, Piper's has served as both vernacular playhouse to the perverse and solid, centralized community center and soul of the Comstock Lode.

High school graduations have commenced over the same maple floorboards on which men have fought wild bears to entertain blood-thirsty miners. The building has been used as a roller rink, a basketball court and a performance space for a troupe of Zulu warriors.

Mark Twain was a regular in its corner saloon. Miss Ella LaRue performed high-wire acts from the house balcony.

Whether it was a scarlet red-light of a burlesque or the pure white of a spotlight heading stage-ward toward theater legend David Belasco, Piper's Opera House has illumined history in such a way that in August 2001, first lady Laura Bush officially designated it an "American Treasure."

Now in its third incarnation after a pair of 19th century fires, the opera house is in the middle of a multi-million renaissance and restoration that will restore its grandeur while maintaining its original charm.

Sunday celebrates the opera house's 120th anniversary with a Mardi Gras-style open house featuring the Reno Jazz Orchestra and featured speaker Dr. Scott Casper from the University of Nevada, Reno, who will accompany the unveiling of a recently restored 19th century oil-cloth oleo from the opera house's presentation of the play "Uncle Tom's Cabin." In grand Piper's tradition, there will also be a no-host bar.

But what do you give to a 120-year-old American icon who has seen it all?

Manager Sam Folio is hoping attendees will take advantage of a special commemorative coin recently struck at the Carson City mint just for the occasion or even take up an opera house membership - proceeds from both will go to help raise the money needed to fully complete the restoration effort.

"We're really excited about this," said Folio, dressed in Comstock-era opera house attire and gripping a red dragon's-head cane.

His voice resonates from the stage to the very back row of seats, the acoustics of the auditorium making every sound appear to be emanating from a finely aged instrument.

"Harriet Beecher Stowe's (author of the novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin") father and husband both spoke on abolitionism here from this very stage in the 19th century," he says.

Folio has dedicated the rest of his life to seeing the opera house restored, and once inside, it's easy to see why. The history is so fresh in the air that it leaves a palpable grit between your thumb and forefinger. One can feel the presence of playful spirits. The place brims with authenticity.

As visitors who came from more than 27 different countries last year alone to stand inside the historic theater would agree, a trip to Piper's Opera House in Virginia City feels more like a pilgrimage than just a tourist stop.

n Contact reporter Peter Thompson at pthompson@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1215.

If you go


Piper's Opera House 120th anniversary party


Noon to 6 p.m. Sunday


Corner of B and Union streets in Virginia City




Contact Sam Folio

(775) 720-4692


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