This old house
More than 130 years after its original launch, the Woodland Opera House survives—and thrives
Sacramento boasted several beautiful theaters in the late 1800s—all long since fallen to the wrecking ball.
However, in downtown Woodland, there’s still an ornate 19th-century theater that now sustains the glory of that bygone era. The Woodland Opera House originally opened in 1885, only to burn down in 1892. The theater was rebuilt, opening its doors again in 1896. From that point, it became an entertainment draw for hundreds of vaudeville acts that arrived by train.
When the growing popularity of silent films made vaudeville unprofitable, the Woodland Opera House was boarded up in 1913, and gradually fell into disrepair.
Six decades later, an effort to save the building began in the 1970s. Angela Baltezore, now the executive director of the Woodland Opera House, remembers performing there as a student in 1975. “The leaky roof had been fixed, but the theater was very, very dusty, and most of the original seats were broken,” she says of that era. “It was an adventure.”
By 1989, some $2 million in restoration work had been completed, and the Woodland Opera House officially relaunched. The building is now owned by the California State Parks system and run by a Woodland nonprofit. It regularly hosts community theater and concert performances, education programs and school field trips.
On Tuesdays, there are backstage tours. Visitors can experience old-school sound effects like a “wind machine” (a hand-cranked cylinder rubbing against tight canvas) and check out the dressing rooms, where century-old graffiti and handbills have been preserved. Also on the tour: three trapdoors that allow actors to “pop up” on stage. There are sobering reminders, too, of the era in which the opera house came to be, including an old poster promoting a minstrel show, with dancers performing in blackface.
On the lighter side of history, the opera house has long been thought to be haunted. Some folks say there is a ghost—the spirit of a firefighter who perished in the 1892 blaze.
“Sometimes ’ghost hunters’ are permitted to stay in the opera house overnight, hoping to get a glimpse,” Baltezore says.
Today, the historic auditorium has 250 comfortable seats downstairs, and approximately another 250 people can be seated on spartan, pew-like benches in the balcony. That’s more seating than you’ll find at the B Street Theatre, Sacramento Theatre Company or Capital Stage—and Woodland had only 3,000 residents when the Opera House was built. The space does not go to waste. Recent opera house performances of West Side Story and a dance recital drew capacity crowds, for example.
This month, new theatrical lighting will be installed—the lights that went in during the 1980s restoration failed during this spring’s production of Romeo and Juliet.
“We’re still raising money,” Baltezore says.
While the living-history atmosphere of the opera house is priceless, producing shows in a restored 19th-century venue is challenging, Baltezore adds.
“It’s like living in a very large, very old home,” she says. “There is always something that needs upkeep.”