By Linda Emley
I want to thank everyone that stopped by the Farris Theatre’s Friends Gallery this weekend to view our WW II artifacts display. We had a big crowd all three days and it was nice to see everyone and hear their stories. I got there a few minutes early on Sunday and as I sat there in the quiet gallery, I drifted back to another time and place to dream about all the things this building has been in the past. I’ve been told that it was once a Temple Stevens Grocery store. What would they think if they saw how beautiful the gallery is today?
I want to thank Melinda White for all her hard work putting this exhibit together. She put in many long hours and was gracious enough to allow me to stop by now and then and decorate a bit too.
One of the highlights of the weekend for me was when the cast from “The Diary of Anne Frank” came over Saturday night and got their picture taken in front of the German Flag we had displayed. Seeing this picture, made it all seem real.
Another highlight was Sunday when several veterans stopped by to share stories. A big thanks to Dean Richards for sharing more than stories. Dean brought one of his rifles, which was a big hit with the guys. Since I spent most of my weekend at the gallery, I thought it would be a good time to share my story about the Farris Theater.
This building is one of the most-loved buildings in Richmond. We always walk out of the Farris a different person than when we walked in a few hours earlier. How many times have I seen a movie there and then darted out the side door because I didn’t want someone to see me crying over some sappy movie? Maybe your child was performing on stage for the first time or one of our favorite veteran performers was back for another Kiwanis production. Many of us got kissed there or at least held hands while sitting in the dark. There were town meetings, heated political speeches, graduations and other special events held on this stage. There are so many wonderful stories attached to this building.
In 1880, the Richmond Opera House opened and became our first theater. A short time later, W.W. Mosby and Son opened an opera house in the upper floor of their downtown business. The Richmond Opera House flourished briefly and the Mosby Opera House operated until some time after 1900. We are lucky the building we love did not meet the same fate as the other opera houses.
When The Farris opened in 1901, it was the Dougherty Auditorium. Samuel Dougherty struck it rich in the gold mines of Colorado and when he moved to Richmond, he wanted to do something special for his new town. One article mentioned that the theater had been his attempt to build a monument to his family name. The Dougherty name was dropped 10 years later when lawyer J.L. Farris bought the opera house. He leased it to F.G. Weary II in 1914, and then sold it to him in 1921. I was surprised the name was not changed over the years but I heard that J.L. Farris made a deal with the Wearys and asked them to not change it’s name.
In June 1900, Dougherty asked the town to raise $5,000 toward the $15,000 cost. Five people in charge of fundraising sold 500 tickets at $10 a ticket. Within 2 weeks, they had raised $3,000.
The July 19,1900, Richmond Conservator said, “Dougherty put a force of men at work Tuesday morning cutting down trees and otherwise putting the ground in shape for his new opera house.” Every few days, there would be a short note in the paper telling about the progress of the new opera house.
The Dougherty Auditorium design is similar to the Folly Theater in Kansas City, designed by Louis Curtiss in 1900. There was a reference that the building was based on the Tabor Opera House in Leadville, Colo., built by H.A.W Tabor. The Farris looks more like the Folly than the Tabor Opera House. The Colorado reference may have been Dougherty’s attempt to make his opera house seem like the one he left behind in Colorado. He even had the original opera house curtain painted with a scene of a Colorado landscape.
Dougherty spared no expense. New York artists came to work on the interior décor. It was also mentioned that the Wm. Eckart Decorating Company of Chicago arrived to complete the interior.
Dougherty consulted with O.D. Woodward of Kansas City’s Auditorium Theater about the opening night attraction. Contributors to the building fund had opening-night seats reserved according to the amount they donated. Every seat in the house was filled for the opening June 20, 1901, “… the most fashionable and refined audience ever assembled in Richmond on a similar occasion.” The show was “As You Like it” performed by a Kansas City company. Ticket prices were $1 to 25 cents. The show received a poor review from the Richmond Conservator, but the building was praised as. “…a beauty, second to none in the state outside of the large cities and every citizen of Richmond is justly proud that such a building is located in our city.” One newspaper article referenced Richmond as being a town fit for conventions now with this fine opera house and new hotel.
The Farris is on the National Register of Historic Places and is owned by the Friends of the Farris, Inc. Our Friends of the Farris were not the first Friends of this story. “The people of Richmond have been liberal in helping and we hope that they will continue the friends of the Dougherty Auditorium.” – Richmond Conservator, June 27, 1901. I think the “Friends of the Dougherty” would be very proud of the “Friends of the Farris.” Their opera house is still around and it looks as good as it did the day it opened in 1901.
It’s taken a lot of love, time, money and hard work to make the Farris what it is today. We all need to support and appreciate our opera house so it will be here for many more generations to enjoy as much as we enjoy it now.