The Piper calls
Piper’s Opera House, a troubled but historic Virginia City building, has a new director who aims to return the venue to its former glory
Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City is more than just a stately old building. The one-time cultural epicenter of a booming mining town, the venue attracted hundreds of artistic luminaries back in the day, including John Barrymore and Maude Adams. In continuing the tradition of providing high-end theatrical entertainment to Northern Nevada, Piper’s continues to be a living entity, and the new executive director, Lori Barrington, says she’s determined to keep it that way.
With five different executive directors in the past five years, the building has fallen prey to financial struggles and operational disputes. Barrington seeks to replace “small-town, petty politics” with creative efficiency.
“I’m an old, stubborn bull out in the field,” says Barrington, and she means it. A native Nevadan from Elko who has resided in Virginia City for more than 14 years, Barrington volunteered at Piper’s throughout the years, and she now has the full-time position of maintaining the place.Family history
John Piper’s great-great-granddaughter happens to be in town. Nancy Driggs has not been to Piper’s Opera House in years. She lives on the East Coast and made the trip to Northern Nevada to sort through numerous family and Opera House heirlooms that she has had in storage.
Driggs has plenty of stories about Piper’s. She mentions, for example, Tilco, the opera house cat, who had the run of the place during his feline tenure.
“The raked stage is what makes it so famous,” she says, pointing out the traditional sloped stage that allowed audience members to have a good view regardless of their seat. Her mother, Louise Zimmer-Driggs, was the last heir to the building. Her father was Edward Zimmer, John Piper’s grandson.
“I ran across a letter my mother wrote to my grandfather,” says Driggs. “She asked if she could take over the opera house.” Zimmer-Driggs took control of the building in 1960 and set about to restore it for its original use: entertainment.
Zimmer-Driggs was an accomplished violinist, and during her tenure, the walls of the opera house were filled with music. “Mom sold it [to nonprofit organization Piper’s Opera House Programs Inc.] in 1997. … That was a really tough thing. She was petrified something would happen to it.”
Driggs says that her mother worked tirelessly to have the opera house declared a historical building. Indeed, Piper’s was her all-consuming passion, even before she moved from New Jersey to a small house next door to the building to be close to it in 1988. Her daughter remembers her mother’s detailed letters, dictating every element of Piper’s restoration process.
“Mom did her thing,” says Driggs, smiling as she looks around the building that contains so many family memories. “I feel a book coming out of me!” she exclaims.Silver and blue
Luckily, despite recent economic troubles, Louise Zimmer-Driggs can rest easy knowing that there is a group of individuals as intent on restoring the Opera House as she was in her time.
“I want to paint it!” Barrington exclaims. “It used to be a beautiful gray. It was gorgeous.” The color was mixed just for the building, and it was called Piper’s Opera House Gray. Barrington has just finished arranging a wall of old photographs. She believes that the Opera House should be run like a business, and her formula is simple: Fix it up, pay the mortgage and maintain the building for future generations. With a building full of memorabilia to sift through, it’s a long road to organizational restoration.
“We can’t be stalled in this state forever, we need to keep moving forward,” she says. In addition to leasing out the downstairs bar to Bill Migan, longtime Virginia City resident and bar owner, Barrington hopes to continue partnering with high school performances and to create revenue by renting the building out for weddings and private parties.
“Capacity is 360,” says Barrington, as she recalls how John Piper used to cram a thousand people into the opera house for a show. Even these days, the aesthetics and feel of the building have attracted attention from artists who want to continue the house’s traditions.
Reno band Buster Blue recorded their second album, When The Silver’s Gone, at Piper’s this past January. The band spent five days in Virginia City, staying at the Silver Queen and recording at the opera house. In addition to its illustrious history, the building has exemplary acoustics.
“We used almost no artificial reverb on the album,” says album co-producer Zak Girdis. “We just used the room. I like places that have a feeling to them, and I like natural sounds better than recording in a small studio that is costing you way more money.”
Creating the album in Virginia City was Girdis’ idea. Both the album title and the band’s self-described opera-house-Americana- with-horns musical style made Piper’s Opera House the ideal location to record.
“If it was in San Francisco, it would be one of the coolest things in San Francisco,” says Girdis. “For us to have that here in Northern Nevada, where everything revolves around casinos and strip malls, it’s a special thing, and it should be respected for what it is.”
For Buster Blue, Piper’s contains deep thematic ties to their album.
“It has to do with loneliness, leaving home and death, us being in Virginia City,” says band member Andy Martin. “It’s about what happens when the silver’s gone, when your livelihood is taken away.”Piper dreams
While the lack of funds has been a pressing issue in recent times, when Piper’s Opera House was constructed in 1885, there was still plenty of silver to go around. The opera house has risen, phoenix-like, from two fires and has withstood multiple incarnations from a theater, to a museum, to arguably the world’s most opulent basketball court. At one time, people even roller-skated on Piper’s wooden floor.
There will be no more hoop-shooting or careening on wheels throughout the opera house, but that doesn’t mean that the old time building can’t still host a modern day celebration. This year, for the first time, Virginia City will be included in Reno’s Artown festivities. On July 3, at 7 p.m., Piper’s Opera House will host Sweden Salutes Virginia City, a musical celebration in which the Siktuna Brass Sextet from Sweden will perform dressed in period military garb, playing musical instruments from the 1800s. Tickets cost $15 for adults and $7.50 for children.
“It’s a high-class event we’re having here that promotes the town’s history,” says Barrington.
There’s still plenty of work to be done to completely restore Piper’s to its original grandeur—from overdue building reparations and painting to rejoining the age of technology by getting the website back online. Barrington and the board members have the challenge to ensure that the show goes on. With the combination of public support and proper administration, Piper’s Opera House aims to provide the community with a living relic of its heritage and new live entertainment in Northern Nevada.