Elks interior early 1900s

Early 1900s Elks Opera House Interior. Photo UBP Sharlot Hall Museum. Reuse only by permission.

 

© 2010 Parker Anderson and Jack D. Wilson   

In the early twentieth century there were numerous Elks Opera Houses across America. One hundred years later only one has survived in the entire country. This series traces the history of this unique structure; how it was built, how it was used, how it later was used as a movie house for 72 years, how it fell into decline, how it was almost lost and finally the story of its amazing restoration. The history of the Elks Opera House has mirrored the history of Prescott.   

Prescott, Arizona began as a gold mining and military encampment in 1864. President Abraham Lincoln chose Prescott as the Territorial Capital of Arizona because there were too many Confederate sympathizers in Tucson. The gold did not last very long (but you can still pan for gold today) and Prescott lost its place as the Territorial capital (after being the capital twice). It then evolved into a ranching community. But Prescott’s military encampment, Ft. Whipple, remained as an anchor.   

In the 1890 census, Prescott had a population of 1,789[1]. In January 1896 the Elks Lodge BPOE[2] 330 was founded. By the 1900 census Prescott’s population had exploded to 3,559[3]. In August 1900 the Elks purchased a vacant lot on Gurley Street and later bought adjacent vacant property.   

The Elks originally planned to build the structure in order to have a permanent lodge; they had been renting various meeting rooms around town since 1896.  They started to seriously consider an Opera House after the old Dake Opera House was bulldozed (in 1903; it was only half a block away). Construction was estimated at $50,000.   

Later, after a competing plan to build an opera house in Prescott did not materialize, a notice was published in the 1904 Prescott Daily Journal Miner urging businessmen of the city to attend a meeting on Feb. 12 to discuss a proposal from the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks Lodge #330 to include an opera house, at an estimated cost of $15,000, to the building they were erecting on East Gurley Street.   

“Prescott should have a good opera house and there never was a good chance before to have one for the money that this will cost, and if this chance is lost it will be a good long time before another such opportunity is offered.” 

The residents of Prescott had migrated from the East and missed the entertainment they used to enjoy. They raised the necessary funds and the opera house was incorporated into the plans for the three-story building housing the lodge on the top floor, offices on the second floor and retail space on the ground floor. The granite cornerstone of the building was laid on April 3, 1904, with an excited crowd in attendance.   

The February 10, 1905, Prescott Weekly Courier reported: 

“The peer of that theatre is not found east of San Francisco until the great cities of the Mississippi Valley are reached, and even there our theatre is outclassed only as to size, for our theatre is about as perfect as the handiwork of man generally gets to be.”  

The Elks held their grand opening on Monday, February 20, 1905. It included the stage show MARTA OF THE LOWLANDS by Angel Guimera, starring the then-famed stage actress Florence Roberts and billed as a romance of old Spain.  The play itself, though forgotten today, was quite acclaimed at the time, and to this day there are streets and monuments in Barcelona named in honor of its fictitious hero, Manelic. The orchestra was composed of musicians from Prescott, Jerome and Phoenix. Opera boxes sold for $20.00 and general admission was $2.50. The box office proceeds totaled $1,225, leaving a $600 to $700 net profit for the Elks Lodge. This play was recreated as part of the 100th anniversary of the Elks in 2005.   

After that, the Elks hosted many more professional traveling road show plays and many local productions were staged. Prescott High School and St. Joseph’s Academy held their graduation ceremonies there (called “commencement exercises” in those days).  Famous people who graced the stage during this period included bandleader John Philip Sousa, and former Presidential candidate turned evangelist William Jennings Bryan, both in 1909.   

Elks Exterior circa 1915

The elks Opera House c1915. Photo UBP Sharlot Hall Museum. Reuse only by permission.

 

This is the first in a series about the Prescott Arizona Elks Opera House in Prescott Arizona. In the next installment, we will cover the middle history of the Elks, from 1910-1942, when it was used for vaudeville shows that included short movies and later just for movies.   

About the authors   

Parker Anderson is the official Historian of the Elks Opera House. He spent thousands of hours compiling all known bookings in the first 100 years of the Opera House.   

Jack D. Wilson is the former Mayor of Prescott Arizona. He has had a long interest in history having founded two neighborhood historic societies in Chicago. He was instrumental in providing the funds that allowed “Bill the Elk” to return from Prescott Valley to his rightful perch atop the Elks Opera House.   


[1] “POPULATION OF ARIZONA.; Census Shows Increase of 62,592 Since 1890,” October 18, 1900, New York Times   

[2] Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks   

[3] “POPULATION OF ARIZONA.; Census Shows Increase of 62,592 Since 1890,” October 18, 1900, New York Times 

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