Early History: 1890 - 1915
Up until the late 1860s Ute Indians occupied the greater Western Colorado. In 1868 a treaty was signed with the United States that "granted" the Utes nearly one quarter of the present day Western Colorado - including the unknowingly mineral rich San Juan Mountains. However, as mining interest skyrocketed in the early 1870s, an additional four million acres of the San Jan Mountains were ceded from the Utes. Finally, in the summer of 1881 the last of the Ute bands marched in a forced exodus to Utah Territory, looking back an unfamiliar land swarmed with miners.
During the 1880s the town of Telluride, briefly known as Columbia, quickly blossomed into a small, mining supported community. With the arrival of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad in 1890, more people, supplies, equipment and raw materials were able to move in and out of town with greater ease. With a peak population topping 5,000, Telluride bustled with energy and a need for entertainment.
Saloons and bars soon shot up by the dozen as banks, schools, churches and police departments slowly followed suit. A red light district along East Pacific Avenue was quickly established as masses of men eager for a drink and female company returned to town after weeks of hard labor in the mines. In fact, it was the tax collected from the red light district prostitutes that helped fund infrastructure and city improvements throughout the late 1800s.
After a series of mine fires, avalanches and mining strikes in early 1900, Telluride finally began to stand strong again by the end of the first decade. By 1909 the Telluride district had produced $ 60,000,000 in mineral-rich ore, with around $ 13,000,000 coming from the Liberty Bell, Smuggler-Union and Tomboy mines in just six years of operation. In effect, prosperity overcame hard times and society continued to flourish.
This immaculate mountain setting became the attraction point for railroad excursions, picnics, circus acts and riding clubs. As high culture blossomed, wealthy mine owners and aristocrats began to host lavish parties, balls and evenings of entertainment.
It was in 1912 that J. A. Segerberg, manager of the New Sheridan Hotel, recognized Telluride's need for a venue to host such events. With his eye on the laundry facility behind the hotel, Mr. Segerberg quickly began to develop the plans for a three story, intimate opera house. He wanted to settle on nothing less than the best so traveled to Denver to meet with the top construction firms that the state had to offer. From these meetings Segerberg's vision came to life. The October 31, 1912 Telluride Journal describes his endeavor.
"The interior of the proposed opera house will be about 30x40 feet exclusive of the stage... There will be no posts to interfere with the view of the stage as the roof will be double trussed. There will be a small balcony in the rear of the building which will be hung from the ceiling so there will be no supporting post to interfere with the view of those sitting under the balcony... The building of this new opera house will attract more and better shows and entertaining troupes here and the people of this community will then be treated to the very best in the amusement way."
The Segerberg Opera House would also be unique in artistic style. An unknown, highly skilled, artisan delicately painted floral stencils all throughout the theater interior to help create a scene of warmth and color for those looking to escape the cold, dark outdoors. As these stencils were evaluated by historians in the late 1990s it became evident that the original decorative painting of the Opera House was a rare example of the transitional period between the Art Nouveau style of the late 1800s and the Craftsman style of the 1920s.
The building of the Segerberg Opera House was successfully completed in July of 1913 and quickly became home to many traveling troupes, moving pictures and high class events. The Opera House was built with connecting floors to the lavish New Sheridan Hotel, enabling prominent entertainers of the period including Sarah Bernhardt, Lillian Gish, and speakers such as Socialist Presidential Candidate Eugene Debs, to go directly from their rooms to the stage. Famous entertainers and audience members such as Williams Jennings Bryant (a frequent visitor to both the New Sheridan Hotel and the Opera House) brought national attention to this 236 seat "jewel box" of a theater.
The following year on July 27th, 1914, a devastating flood rushed down Cornet Creek and tore its way down North Oak Street. Mud and rocks literally moved and flattened houses along the way, burying people and the New Sheridan Hotel in nearly ten feet of debris. By a stroke of luck the slide moved around the theater on both sides, leaving the building entirely unharmed.
Mid-Century History: 1916 - 1980s
When prohibition took effect in Colorado on January 1, 1916, Telluride began to suffer culturally and financially. Saloons closed and patronage at the opera house nearly ended. The Segerbergs were finally forced to close the theater doors completely by the early 1930s. Prohibition lasted 18 years with many residents finding their fix through black market liquor purchases.
It was also in the late 1920s and early 30s that skiing shifted from being a mode of transportation around the mines to a recreational pastime for many locals. The Telluride Ski Club operated from 1924 -1925 and with the help of many enthusiastic locals, six different rope tow lifts were built on the mountain from 1937 - 1963. Locked and chained for 30 years, the Segerberg Theater reopened in the early 1960s. Renamed the Sheridan Opera House after the neighboring New Sheridan Hotel, the opera house once again became home to live entertainment and movies.
In the 1970s Telluride reinvented itself. When the Telluride Ski Resort opened in 1972, the character of the town shifted into a society focused on community, tourism and being unlike any other destination in the country. To feed this unique atmosphere, many festivals, music, and performing art events began to grow and operate year round. In 1973 Bill and Stella Pence founded the now famous Telluride Film Festival, using the Sheridan Opera House as its primary movie theater.
Within a few years the Pences purchased and remodeled the dilapidated building, altering the history of the theater's interior and making it home to the Telluride Film Festival. Then, in 1983, R.N. Williams and J.W. Lloyd purchased the building, adding a new entryway, conference room and the third floor Vaudeville Bar.
Current History: 1990s - Present
In 1991 the Sheridan Opera House was in a severe state of disrepair and in jeopardy of commercial development. It was at this time that the Sheridan Arts Foundation was founded as a 501(c)(3) non-profit, and together with the Town of Telluride and the Colorado Historical Society, undertook the project of restoring the crumbling building.
The renovations were designed to be in three phases, and starting in 2000 took a total of ten years to plan, develop and complete. As Telluride continued to transform into a bustling resort town, the Sheridan Arts Foundation continued to fulfill its mission of preserving the historic Sheridan Opera House, bringing quality art and cultural events into Telluride, as well as providing local and national youth with access and exposure to the arts.
In Fall 2009 and Spring 2010 the Sheridan Arts Foundation fulfilled its final renovation commitment by restoring the original decorative stenciling within the theater. In 2013 the Sheridan Opera House renovated its entryway to duplicate what the building once had. It has been with the support of many local and national donors, as well as numerous granting agencies, that the Sheridan Arts Foundation has continually been able to fulfill its mission to the Telluride community.
For more information on Telluride history please visit the Telluride Historical Museum website.