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,
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:
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, 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, 1973), 146.

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.

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Updated 9/22/97