The view from center stage at the Woodland Opera House. The seats, which date to the 1989 renovation, were recently reupholstered. (Photos and captions by Charles Vincent McDonald)

The Oldest Opera House in the Sacramento Valley Reopens (Again)

Back Web Only Jun 18, 2021 By Jennifer Fergesen

On June 15, 1896, the Woodland Opera House, built in 1885 as the first opera house in the Sacramento Valley, opened its doors for the first time since a fire destroyed the building four years earlier. On June 15, 2021 — 125 years later to the day — the theater reopened after another crisis.

The Woodland Opera House is a state historic park operated by the City of Woodland and the nonprofit Woodland Opera House.

The Woodland Opera House, now a nationally registered historic place and a state historic park operated by the City of Woodland and the nonprofit Woodland Opera House, celebrated the 125th anniversary of its reopening June 15 in conjunction with the official reopening of the state of California after a 15-month shutdown due to COVID-19. 

Attendees walk past the opera house welcome display on their way into the auditorium’s lower seating area.

A small crowd gathered at the theater in the morning for behind-the-scenes tours and historical talks in the auditorium. They padded along the thick red carpet, peeked into display cases full of photographs and memorabilia from the opera house’s early glory days, and sank into the velvet folding seats, recently reupholstered in time for the reopening. It was the first time outsiders had entered the building since the shelter-in-place order canceled the closing weekend of the opera house’s last play, “Of Mice and Men.”

A case in the museum area of the Woodland Opera House displays memorabilia from the glory days before the opera house’s 1913 closure.

Last year wasn’t the first time the stage went dark. After decades as a standard stop for Broadway shows on their Western tours, the opera house closed in 1913 after a lawsuit by an attendee who broke an arm when she fell out of a loading door. Like many small-town opera houses during the rise of cinemas, the building decayed over the following years. It was purchased by the Yolo County Historical Society in 1971 and reopened in 1989 after extensive renovations to bring it back to its 1890s zenith. 

In 1969, before the renovation that began in 1971, the Woodland Opera House was occupied by squatters. (Photo courtesy of Woodland Opera House)

Since then, “It’s been a very successful venture,” says Lou Anderson, secretary of the Woodland Opera House board of trustees. The opera house’s plays and musicals, usually cast with local talent, routinely take home armfuls of Elly Awards, hosted by the Sacramento Area Regional Theatre Alliance. For the shortened 2019-20 season, the theater received 47 nominations in the Ellies, the most out of any local company, and 21 awards at the invite-only outdoor ceremony last summer. 

Lou Anderson, left, and Doyle Tuman are members of the Woodland Opera House board of trustees.

Local support helped the show go on throughout the pandemic. The actors put on virtual performances that viewers could pay to watch online, and the educational department held remote classes for children and adults. “It was tough, just like it was for a lot of other venues across the country,” says Steve Cairns, president of the board of trustees, “but we did manage through some generous donations, through some significant grant writing.”

Steve Cairns is the president of the Woodland Opera House board of trustees.

Live performance will return to the stage in July with a series of concerts by the aptly named Fleetwood Mask, a Fleetwood Mac tribute band. The Woodland Opera House’s theater season will begin in September with a lineup of plays and musicals announced on Facebook Live June 18. 

Members of the Woodland community were invited to tour the opera house after the outdoor ceremony.

Many Capital Region theater companies are on a similar timeline. Capital Stage in Sacramento, Davis Musical Theatre Company in Davis and Stockton Civic Theatre in Stockton have all announced season openings in late August or September. Others, including Sutter Street Theatre in Folsom, Sierra Stages in Nevada City and McLaughlin Theatre Co. in Loomis, are rehearsing for shows opening in June or July. Capital Region theatergoers, used to a scene with nearly 100 local companies (including school drama clubs), will soon have a full calendar to choose from again. 

It may be difficult for some of the Capital Region’s theater companies to turn the lights back on (and a few, including Showbiz Theatre Company in Stockton, closed permanently last year). But the many rises and falls of the Woodland Opera House over its history show that it’s possible for a small theater to rebound after major setbacks. “We’re going to continue to work on our educational department and continue to offer classes and try to pick up the slack that our public schools can’t afford to,” says Cairns. “And we’re going to continue to do extremely impressive shows.”

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