Before there was the movie house, there was the opera house. In the late nineteenth century Wisconsin cities were being connected by rail, bringing new opportunity, prosperity and connections from the more "civilized" East. Towns that may have once been isolated frontier outposts now aspired to greater things.
"A lot of communities built opera houses as status symbols," says historian Jim Draeger, "It was a sense of having made it and established a sophisticated affluent society."
Draeger was interviewed for a Wisconsin Stories episode titled "Passing Through" that looks at the various traveling shows, preachers, and even wrestlers who passed through the state attracting crowds and playing their own part in Wisconsin history.
Passing through was greatly aided by the railroad which meant Wisconsin towns like Oshkosh and Stoughton could see the sametop-notch entertainment seen in large cities.
Both the Stoughton Opera House and Oshkosh's Grand Opera House are featured in "Passing Through" and as Quicktime virtual tours . Now proudly restored, these opera houses had been through their share of hard times. Movies and television, as well as paved highways to larger cities, made the entertainment offered at opera house no longer commercially viable.
But in Stoughton, Oshkosh, and a number of other Wisconsin towns the fond memories of good times at the opera house have spurred loving restoration efforts. What once were status symbols of affluence are now renewed symbols of civic pride and historic appreciation.
Oshkosh volunteer Nick Nebel puts it this way: "We've torn down a lot of our heritage over the years for whatever reasons. I think it's good for a community to have a little space where they can say 'Gee whiz, Enrico Caruso sang in this building. Mark Twain was here.'"