In the winter of 1999, I sat on the floor of my grad school apartment in Victoria, British Columbia, and drew a rough sketch in my notebook. The sketch I was creating was culled from my own imagination; it was a drawing of the kind of theater I wanted to work in, more specifically, the kind of theater in which I wanted to direct plays with children. I would be finishing my master’s degree in drama education in just a few months, and I didn’t have a job yet, so I was stressed and worried. And so I drew. The dream theater I sketched was small, so kids’ voices would carry throughout. My dream theater was old-fashioned, with a graceful arch rising high over a postage stamp stage. Best of all, my dream theater had warm pink lights outlining the proscenium, casting the room in a rosy, happy glow.
A few months later, I found myself headed to Colorado to visit some little town I’d never heard of to interview with Ronnie Palamar of the Sheridan Opera House. My boyfriend Travis was living in Taos at the time, and he was psyched to meet me for this trip, partially because he missed me but mostly, I suspect, because he wanted to ski Telluride. We did laps on Chair 9 all morning, then I changed in the car, attempted to smooth my hair and headed to my interview. When I climbed the stairs and opened the doors of the auditorium, my jaw hit the floor. There it was, the theater I had sketched, the theater of my dreams. It was all there, right down to the rosy pink lights. “How do you like it?” Ronnie asked me with a smile. “It’s perfect,” I replied, and hoped she couldn’t see the tears in my eyes.
That was the beginning of the 17 happy years of my life I spent in that incredibly special place, the Sheridan Opera House. Ronnie took a chance on me and hired me to direct the Sheridan Arts Foundation’s Young People’s Theater. I directed nearly 60 plays with local children on that tiny stage. Travis and I celebrated our wedding reception there. I saw hundreds of performances and spent thousands of hours witnessing that theater deliver its magic again and again, wrapping its arms around performers and audience members alike. When I left my job and Telluride to go sailing with my family in 2016, I said goodbye to the jewel-box theater that had given me so much. It felt like I was leaving one of my dearest friends.
I believe that some buildings have souls, and the Sheridan Opera House possesses one of the rarest, wisest and most beautiful ones I’ve ever known. All of the passion, work, love, talent, laughter and preservation that have been poured into the place for over 107 years have made the old girl the treasure that she is, a community haven with a thriving, beating heart. These days, when I walk past the opera house and see her dark and quiet, my heart aches for my old friend. Theaters are meant to have things happening within them, it’s that energy that keeps them alive.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Sheridan Opera House has joined thousands of live theaters and cinemas across the country, including our own Palm and Nugget theaters, that have suffered profusely from closures. Many of these venues may face the sad reality of remaining permanently dark. I spoke with my former boss and friend to get an update.
“We are doing everything we can to be creative and to keep things going here,” she said optimistically.
They’ve offered tickets to livestream events, sold plein air paintings out of the SHOW Bar and kept the Young People’s Theater going with casts of 10 children rather than the usual 30. Ronnie had planned to offer a few live shows this winter with very limited audiences (50 or below), but since our community reached level red, she’s been forced to cancel or postpone those events, including the kids’ rehearsals and productions.
Maintaining the historic building is costly, and pandemic-related safety measures, such as the $13,000 air purifiers that were installed throughout the building, have added to the financial tension. Lost rental income combined with lost ticket revenues further the blow. A $61,000 arts grant from San Miguel County will provide a much needed shot in the arm for the opera house, as the amount will cover two months of operating costs.
Ronnie is hopeful that patrons will buy tickets to the virtual concert donated by Jeff Daniels on Jan. 8.
Every bit helps, but the stress on our beloved opera house is real and deeply felt. Ronnie reports that her staff’s morale can be low at times “because everyone is worried.” And while the opera house staff and board members fully understand the necessity of the current restrictions, they are also aware of the mental and emotional strain that the lack of live performance creates in this pandemic climate.
“When people can watch a show in the opera house, even while wearing a mask and sitting apart, they feel a tiny bit of normalcy, and people need that,” she said.
Indeed, we need the Sheridan Opera House, and the Sheridan Opera House needs us right now. I am going to do what I can to support my dear old friend in her dark and lonely time, and I hope that you will, too.
Jennifer Julia writes a monthly column for the Daily Planet, The Wanderlust Mom.