Sonneck Society for American Music
Bulletin, Volume XXIII, no. 2 (Summer 1997)
Thomas Maguire in Virginia City
Cheryl Taranto, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Known as the "Napoleon of Impresarios" Thomas Maguire was one of the
best known and most influential theater entreprenuers on the west coast during
the 1860s.1 Before moving to California in 1849, he had been a cab driver and
saloonkeeper in New York. Although a "ruffian" according to various newspaper
accounts, he nevertheless rose quickly in the business world, building many theaters
in San Francisco, three of which were named after Jenny Lind although
she never actually appeared in any of them, and establishing an Academy of
Music in 1864. By the early 1860s, Maguire owned or controlled many of
the most important theatres in California with the intent to create a circuit of
western theatres to lure entertainers from the east. His success in California led
him to expand his empire to cities springing up in Nevada.
Virginia City, Nevada, had its start in the 1859 silver rush, consisting largely of
prospectors from California, and, along with Silver City and Gold Hill, it formed
the north-south line of the Comstock Lode, just east of Lake Tahoe. The
population expanded quickly as fortune hunters flooded the region searching for
riches, and the population swelled from approximately 500 in 1859 to over
50,000 in 1876. By 1870, Virginia City had lighted streets, municipal gas, water,
and sewer services. At one point, four daily and four weekly newspapers were in
circulation.2 J. Ross Browne, a traveler of the region, noted in 1861 that,
The business part of the town has been
built up with astonishing rapidity. In
the spring of 1860 there was nothing of
it save a few frame shanties and canvas
tents, and one or two rough stone
cabins. It now presents some of the
distinguishing features of a metropolitan city.3
With the growth in population came a thirst for musical and theatrical entertainment,
and variety theatres featuring minstrelsy, burlesque, and vaudeville,
appealing to both more genteel audiences as well as to rough miners, proliferated.
When Virginia City sprang up, Maguire recognized the opportunity resulting from
the new found wealth created by the silver rush and the city's position as a
stopover between Salt Lake City and San Francisco. Enticed by the large number of
successful theatres already operating in Virginia City, he opened his first opera
house on July 3, 1863 with John Burns as the local manager and part owner.
Although Maguire began with popular entertainment such as minstrelsy, his
vision was to offer a higher class of entertainment, including
fully staged opera and operetta. To serve this eventual goal, his opera house was much
more elegant than previous theatres built in the city, boasting carpeted aisles, crystal
chandeliers, velvet railings, and gas lighting. Off the foyer stood a billiard
parlor, cigar stand, smoking rooms, and a mahogany bar inlaid with ivory. Let us
look first at the more common types of entertainment in this opera house.
Minstrel shows and burlesques were extremely popular in Virginia City.
Maguire's own minstrel troupe from San Francisco often performed there, and
George Christy's Minstrels and the San Francisco Minstrels were featured at both
Maguire's and Virginia Melodeon. Walter Bray, a Virginia City minstrel performer,
and Charley Rhodes, a banjoist, also performed regularly at Maguire's, receiving
favorable reviews from a number of newspapers. Rhodes had originally performed
regularly one of Maguire's competitors in Virginia City, the Niagara
concert Hall, and many of the songs he composed and performed at Maguire's
were printed in local newspapers.4 "Sheridan's [sic] Cleaned Out of the
Valley" was typical of his songs and contained lyrics dealing with a battle of
the Civil War. Other minstrel shows performed in the other venues in the city;
the Champion Minstrels and Dramatic Troupe performed a "grand matinee" at
Sutliffe's complete with a performance of John Brougham's Prize Burlesque,
"Pocahontas, or, the Gentlc Savage, with music arranged by the Musical Director, a
Mr. Oldfield. The Emerson Minstrels, who travelled throughout the west under
the leadership of Billy Emerson, made many appearances in and around Virginia
City, including several at Maguire's house. Despite frequent changes in personnel
and programming, the Emerson Minstrels remained extremely popular in the
western touring circuit due, at least in part, to Billy Emerson's regular trips to
New York to recruit new members and purchase copies of newly published music.
Opening night at Maguire's Virginia City theatre was described in detail by the
Virginia City newspaper, the Daily Territorial Enterprise, including an account of
the weather and the standing-room-only crowd.5 Julia Dean was the star of the
evening, playing the lead role in the opening piece, "Money." Mutual respect existed
between Maguire and editors and critics of the Enterprise, among whom was Mark
Twain, and an entire row of the best seats in the house were reserved for Enterprise
representatives. In addition, the Enterprise held much of the advertising and
publicity rights for the theater. The good relationship between the newspaper and
the theater turned sour for a short while in 1864 after Adah Isaacs Menken
performed her leading role in "Mazeppa." Before performing in Virginia City,
Menken had already become infamous for her semi-nude appearance in the
drama as staged in San Francisco. Apparently what Menken lacked in
talent, she made up in her charm and well built physique. To the Enterprise critics
she became synonymous with her role in "Mazeppa" and was referred to as simply
"The Menken." The writers were so enchanted with her that they held
contests to produce lyrical prose praising her attributes and printed the results in
the newspaper. Other cast members, ignored in the reviews, countered by
questioning the abilities of the reporters. The controversy created by the
newspaper's infatuation with Menken forced Maguire to close the opera house
for several weeks and givc a public apology to the newspaper's reporters for
remarks made by the cast of "Mazeppa."
Despite the Menken controversy and the resulting bitter feelings between the
newspaper and Maguire, the opera house soon reopened. The frequency of reopenings
of Virginia City opera houses, as evidenced by the regularity of newspaper
advertisements, suggests that it sometimes was a publicity ploy. The Daily Union
described one of many reopenings of Maguire's opcra house on March 28, 1865:
Last evening, at an early hour, our usually quiet community were all agog
with anticipation of the two great attractions, the benefit of the "Fire
laddies" at the Music Hall, and the grand re-opening at Maguires . . .
Soon the bands began to play in front of the two theatres, and at the first tap
of the big drum, and toot of a horn, men, women, boys and girls, pricked up
their ears, and the sidewalks were soon alive with people hurrying to secure
good seats to see the plays.6
A report in the same newspaper talks of the great success of a benefit at the Music
Hall, despite the attractions at Maguire's opera house of the "Invisible Prince," and
a grand "pas de deux."
Although much of the entertainment was light in nature, Maguire succeeded in
successfully promoting touring virtuosi from the realm of high culture. Among
these travelling artists who Maguire brought to Virginia City engagement were the
violinist Camillia Urso, English soprano Anna Bishop, and Anna Hunt, a soprano
known for her interpretation of Auber opera. A high point in the history of
Maguire's Opera House was when Louis Moreau Gottschalk performed in Virginia
City in June 5-7, 1865. The pianist appeared as part of this ill-fated
California tour arranged by Emanuele Muzio, a composer, pianist, and, for a
short time husband of the soprano, Lucy Simons, who also performed with
Gottschalk. The Daily Union and other local Virginia City newspapers lauded
Gottschalk's performances, and the June 6 account states that,
A full house of the beauty and fashion of Virginia greeted the first appearance of the
world-renowned pianist and composer, Mr. Gottschalk, and the charming
cantatrice, Miss Simons. Of the concert we need hardly speak - abler pens than
ours have written their praisc. Tonight, again, our people will have an opportunity
of hearing Mr. Gottschalk, when a different programme will be presented.7
The admiration was apparently not mutual as Gottschalk attested in his Notes
of Pianist to the wretched conditions of Virginia City.8
Along with the other "high-brow" performances at at Maguire's, the impressario managed to
"stage" some opera. Maguire's own "Italian" opera troupe based in San Francisco regularly ventured
out to Virginia City. Euprosyne Parepa-Rosa, a Scottish born soprano and other
members of the Carl Rosa English Opera Company who performed in Maguire's
San Francisco theatres also made their way to Virginia City. Other opera troupes
that Maguire brought to San Francisco and Virginia City included the Lyster
Troupe and the Eugenio and Giovanna Opera Company. Most commonly,
selections from ballad operas such as The Beggars Opera and English translations of
Italian opera were performed. Though the repertoire aspired to high Culture, the
staging could hardly have been extensive due to the severe space Contra at the
opera house. The stage itself measured only approximately 50 feet wide by 35
feet deep with no storage for sets, and the orchestra pit was marginal.
Maguire suffered tremendous financial problems with his opera house during
1866 and 1867. John Piper, who operated a western saloon next to Maguire's
theatre, began incrementally purchasing interests in the opera house in 1867, and
in March Maguire yielded complete control and ownership to him for the
sum of $2,500, which according to the newspaper report satisfied "attachments
and mortgages for that amount." The name was changed to Piper's Opera
House, as it is still known today. Although Maguire remained a heavy investor in
other Virginia City theaters, Piper eventually took the place of Maguire in the
domination of theatrical activities in western Nevada.
In conclusion, the musical life of Virginia City during the 1860s was
diverse, and the thurst for a variety of musical entertainment grew as quickly as
the population. While Thomas Maguire's venture in Virginia City lasted only a brief
four years, he established an opera house that staged performances ranging from
the more typical minstrelsy and light popular music to art song, Opera, and the
most highly renowned of the day's traveling virtuosi. Even though Maguire
does not appear to have been financially successful in Virginia City, his vision of
presenting a mix of high and popular culture enriched its early cultural life.
1. S. Frederick Starr, Bamboula (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 373.
2. Russell R. Elliott, History of Nevada (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press,
3. J. Ross Rrowne, A Peep at Washoe and Washoe Revisted (Balboa Island, CA:
Paisano Press, 1959), 181.
4. "Sheridan's [sic] Cleaned out of the Valley" appears in Daily Territorial Enterprise,
September 16, 1864.
5. News Update, Daily Territorial Enterprise, July 4, 1863.
6. News Update, Daily Union, 29 March 1865.
7. Daily Update, Daily Union, June 6, 1865.
8. Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Notes of a Pianist, ed. by Jeanne Behrend
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), 306.
Cheryl Taranto received her Ph.D. in musicology from Louisiana State University in 1994.
Her dissertation topic was pre-Civil War political songsters and she is currently researching
19th-century western opera houses and extending her work on songsters. She teaches American
Music at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she is also the head of the music library.