Coal and Culture: Opera Houses in Appalachia

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Coal and Culture: Opera Houses in Appalachia William Faricy Condee. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005.

My maternal grandfather, an Italian immigrant, died many years before I was born, but I had always known two things about him: he was a Pennsylvania coal miner, and he liked going to the opera house. Given this, I was drawn to William Faricy Condee's book, Coal and Culture: Opera Houses in Appalachia. A professor of theater at Ohio University, Condee is especially interested in theater architecture, and his book addresses the architectural aspects of the opera house. However, it does much more by establishing the opera house as an important fixture of community life in many Appalachian cities and towns from the end of the Civil War to the 1920s.

Condee concedes that opera houses, although sometimes large enough to hold a third of a town's residents, were not generally structures of great architectural beauty, and for that reason, many were torn down, often to make room for new buildings, movie theaters, or downtown parking lots. Often located on the second story of buildings, they also failed to meet modern building code requirements for safety. They were typically not even sites for the performance of opera, as their name suggests. However, they were, as Condee writes, much more: "the nexus of culture for the communities in which they were located" (x).

In coal mining towns, the opera house served as a meeting hall and venue for community entertainment of all types. "It was used," Condee notes, "for traveling theatrical productions, which included contemporary and classical drama, melodrama, comedy, musicals, vaudeville, and even the occasional opera. But it was also used for concerts, religious events, lectures, high school commencements, boxing matches, benefits for local organizations, union meetings, and, if the auditorium had a flat floor, skating and basketball" (6). …


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