Kearney Opera House (1891-1954)
Once the town's cultural center, the five-story building attracted theater productions from across the nation. It provided entertainment for the community and a space for local events beginning in 1891. The decorative curtain, painted by local artist Samuel Roudiez in the early 1920s, features a list of area businesses, thus offering a glimpse at the economic profile of Kearney in the years prior to the Great Depression.
Backstory and Context
Kearney’s Opera House opened in May 1891 following two years of planning and construction. Kearney National Bank funded construction of the building, which was quite elaborate for the small boomtown. The building’s design, similar to the Chicago Auditorium Theatre, evoked the popular Richardsonian Romanesque style. This included rusticated stonework and distinctive arched windows. The interior proved to be just as elaborate. The lower staircases and first landing were “clouded Italian marble,” while the upper staircase, balustrades, and newels leading into the theater were crafted of antique oak. Wealthy patrons enjoyed “padded leather seats and old rose plush backs,” while audiences in the balcony rested upon “ordinary wood and iron opera chairs.” Unidentified artists painted the theater’s dome and sounding board “to represent the sky, covered with fleecy clouds.” Ninety-six lights perforated the ceiling to create a starlight effect.
The advertising curtain was a relatively late addition to the Kearney Opera House. Local artist and signmaker Samuel Roudiez painted it in the early 1920s. It was not the first decorative curtain to grace the stage. A scene “depicting The Rajah’s Triumphal Entry into Singapore” preceded the advertising curtain, although the fate of that particular mural is unknown. The 1920s curtain, which is constructed of canvas panels sewn together, is an astounding three stories tall. The background scene depicts a Greek garden and the sun setting behind mountains. Thirty-two business advertisements are listed, each of which includes single, two, or three-digit phone numbers reflective of early telecommunications technology in the county.
The advertising curtain provides a striking visual window into the economic atmosphere of 1920s Kearney. Auto dealers, banks, lumber suppliers, clothing stores, and mortuary services figure prominently on the curtain. Smaller independent operations are also featured, including photographers, barber shops, a music store, dry cleaners, and cafés. The curtain suggests that in 1920s Kearney, residents enjoyed access to many of the consumer goods available to people in larger metropolitan areas. Unbeknownst to them at the time, the boom years would come to a halt with the stock market crash of 1929. This was less than a decade after the advertising curtain made its debut. Financial stress eventually forced several of the businesses listed on the curtain to close.
“The 1930s [also] began the economic downfall of the once proud building,” reflected the Kearney Hub in 1948. The Crescent Theater (1907) and the World Theatre (1927) drew customers away from the Opera House’s live performances, thereby diminishing revenue. The Opera House was the first facility in Kearney to show motion pictures, but customers preferred the easy access of street-level theaters. During the WWII and immediate postwar years, the building changed hands repeatedly and, in spite of revenue from office space rentals, its owners could not generate profit. A demolition crew removed the building in 1954. Not coincidentally, its demolition occurred in concert with city leaders’ and business owners’ efforts to update the aesthetic style of the downtown business district. In an effort to meet with the standards set forth by other businesses that were placing slipcovers over late 19th century facades, architects designed the Opera House’s replacement, Bruce Furniture, in the midcentury modern style.
Following the Opera House’s demolition, local banker Harold Swan donated the advertising curtain to Kearney High School’s music department for a performance of “Musicalia.” Students may have used the backside of the curtain to paint a scene of a wagon train for a separate production. Upon close inspection, one can see faint outlines of wagon wheels on the lower left corner of the front side of the curtain: bleed-through from the second painting. KHS later donated the curtain to the Buffalo County Historical Society’s Trails and Rails Museum, which displayed it in the Depot until staff and volunteers relocated the curtain to the new Family History Center in 2017. That same year, the museum received a $5,000 grant from the Theodore G. Baldwin Foundation to restore the curtain to its former glory. With the grant, the museum hired conservator Kenneth Bé of the Gerald Ford Conservation Center to guide the restoration process. Bé retouched water stains, faded areas, and bleed-through, while University of Nebraska at Kearney history students assisted him with the cleaning. The curtain is now on display in the museum's archive, thereby marking a new phase of its 100-year history.
 “Opera House Building Boom Days Landmark,” Kearney Daily Hub, June 7, 1948.
 “Sam Roudiez Dies in Vet Hospital,” Kearney Daily Hub, July 3, 1941; “S.V. Roudiez Sign Writer,” 1926 City Directory (Kearney, NE), p. 37.
 “New Theatre Curtain,” Kearney Daily Hub, December 31, 1909.
 “Opera House Building Boom Days Landmark,” Kearney Daily Hub, June 7, 1948; “Crescent Theater Opening,” Kearney Daily Hub, September 16, 1907; “Our History,” The World Theatre, accessed May 3, 2018, https://www.theworldtheatre.org/about/#our-history; “Kearney Opera House to be Re-sold April 21,” Kearney Daily Hub, March 18, 1941.
 Melissa Dirr-Gengler, “Kearney Downtown Historic District Nomination,” National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Nebraska State Historical Society, September 8, 2017.
 "Advertising Curtain," Kearney Daily Hub, January 20, 1954; UNK Communications, "UNK preservation class helps restore massive historic opera house hanging," Kearney Hub, December 1, 2017, accessed March 25, 2018, http://www.kearneyhub.com/news/local/unk-preservation-class-helps-restore-massive-historic-opera-hou...
Drone image by Cy Cannon, Cannon Digital Solutions, Kearney, NE.
Image of the Opera House from Buffalo County Historical Society Volume 9, No. 8 September 1986.