Monday, January 24, 2011

Who Burned Down the Opera House?

According to the 1920 census of Victor, Teller County, Colorado, my paternal great granduncle, William Clifford LeMASTER was the proprietor of a theatre.  He was living as a lodger in the Francis P. Hall household.  His age was listed as 46 and marital status was given as divorced.  Also living with him was his son, Ralph, aged 17, who was working as an express driver.


Source: Francis P. Hall household, 1920 U.S. census, population schedule, Victor, Teller County, Colorado, ED 238, SD 3, sheet 9, dwelling 192, family 207; Ancestry.com [database on-line].

This finding in the 1920 census jives with information given in the biographical sketch of William's father, Luman Walker LeMASTERS Jr., in Milton T. Jay's History of Jay County, Indiana, on page 197, where it states that William was the proprietor of a motion picture theater in Victor, Colorado.

Previously, William had been a bank cashier at banks in both Elyria, Ohio and Fort Collins, Colorado.  Sometime between 1910 and 1920, probably around the time of his divorce, he switched occupations.

Several weeks ago, I discovered the website Opera in Old Colorado, which had some information and photos of the old opera house in Victor, Colorado.  This opera house was the one being used to house the movie theater.  The opera house burned September 27, 1920, and the website stated that W.C. LeMaster had burned it down to obtain the insurance money.  Very interesting story, indeed!  

I immediately contacted the website's author, in order to obtain more information.  He was able to send me the following:
I have attached an item about the burning of the Victor Opera House from the Fort Collins Courier, Monday, Sept 27, 1920.  At the moment I cannot locate the source of the information about the owner burning the building to collect the insurance.  I will try to do so sometime next week when I can get into the library at CSU to search some newspapers of the time.  If you have access to microfilms of the Rocky Mountain News, you might look at some issues on and after September 27, 1920, to see if you can verify the information.

Cripple Creek has $100,000 fire in Big Opera House

CRIPPLE CREEK, Sept. 27 - The Victor Opera House, the largest structure in the Cripple Creek district, was destroyed by fire at noon today.  The building was valued at $100,000.  No one was in the opera house at the time.  The origin of the fire is a mystery.  The opera house was being used as a motion picture theatre.

Though intriguing, this tidbit didn't mention W.C. LeMaster by name, but it did confirm that the opera house was being used as a motion picture theatre.

The owner of the Opera in Old Colorado website did contact me this week with an update to the information :
I am unable to locate the source of the information about W. C. Le Master burning the Victor Opera House.  I believe it was from a university dissertation, but I cannot find a written record to verify it.  I have found a newspaper account from 1920 that give a different story (see attached).  I do not know which is the more accurate one, but as I do have a copy of the newspaper story, I have used some of the information from it for a modified version now on the website.

Fire raised its ugly head again in September 1920, when the Victor Opera House burned.  At the time, the opera house was said to be the largest structure in the Cripple Creek District and had played host to many famous performers.  Built at an original cost of $65,000, the building was a total loss estimated at $100,000.  The opera house's owner, E.H. Hall of Denver, was insured for no more than $6,500, which was not enough enough to replace even the impressive $7,000 organ.  The opera house was never rebuilt.

The website is now updated with this new information.  Jack Dempsey began his career in Victor and boxed at the opera house.  The search will continue for more information about this mysterious fire.

Another question: what is the relationship between E.H. Hall of Denver and the Francis P. Hall, in whose home William Clifford LeMaster was a boarder in 1920?

I have reached out to the Pikes Peak Library District to see if they have newspaper articles regarding the fire to clear up this mystery.

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