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Stories from the valley

The Woodland Opera House: A Hidden Historic Gem

Contributed by Keli Gwyn

Those who enjoy attending musicals and plays might be familiar with Woodland’s Opera House. The Woodland Opera House Guild puts on numerous performances throughout the year. Those eager to embrace history will enjoy a visit to the stately red brick building located in the heart of the city’s downtown core.

Tours of the Opera House are offered every Tuesday from 2-4 pm, although private tours can be arranged at other times. My husband and I joined a knowledgeable tour guide on a recent Tuesday afternoon, eager to learn more about this historic gem. 

Our tour began in the ticket office at a display case filled with old photographs. The current opera house was built in 1896, using some of the remaining foundations and bricks from the original opera house that was lost to the 1892 fire that burned much of downtown Woodland. Sadly, one of the firefighters lost his life in that blaze when a wall collapsed and fell on him. William Porter’s bravery and heroism, long a part of the theater’s history, are marked by memorials inside the building.

The next stop on our tour was the seating area, which can accommodate 256 theatergoers on the main floor and another 170 in the balcony. The seats today are padded, but those from the original theater were wood. An interesting feature of those early seats, some of which can be seen in the lobby, were the special wires underneath to hold gentlemen’s hats.

Our tour guide took us on stage, where we got an up-close look at some of the theater’s features, including several trap doors. I was fascinated by the display of gaslights used to illuminate the theater prior to electric lights. My husband and I were both impressed by the series of ropes and sand bags used to raise and lower “wing and drop” scenery pieces in days gone by.

We ventured below stage to the prop storage area next and peeked in the three dressing rooms, their walls covered with the signature of actors from past performances. After that brief stop, we returned to the main floor, where we popped into the museum rooms. The larger of the two used to serve as the ladies’ lounge, complete with a fainting couch. A small closet on the upper floor served to meet the men’s needs.

The Opera House, a California Registered Historical Landmark, is one of the state’s smallest historical parks, although you won’t find a park ranger on duty. The theater doesn’t receive any state or federal funds, operating solely on ticket sales, rental fees, fundraising proceeds, and donations, grants, etc. As one of only four fully functioning 19th century opera houses left in California, the Guild and the community are eager to preserve the building and its legacy. Once you’ve paid the Opera House a visit, you’re sure to see why.

To learn more about the Opera House or to schedule a private tour, click here