The Tabor Opera House was the first theater to go up in Leadville in 1879, and over 140 years later it is the only one left standing. Originally built by Horace Tabor, who made a $9 million fortune on silver before losing it all in a single decade, the building has withstood the test of time as it transitioned to the ownership of the fraternal order of the Elks Club, then to local historian Evelyn Furman and her family, until finally being purchased by the city of Leadville in 2016.
The design and architecture of the theater alone have earned the Tabor Opera House the designation as an official “National Treasure” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Thousands of tourists and visitors have walked through its doors to find themselves transported to the glory days of mining-fueled wealth in the Wild West, when the town’s finest ladies and gentlemen would get dressed up to sit in ornately decorated seats and take in an opera among the elite of Western society.
The theater has won the opera house national acclaim, but it wasn’t until three years ago that Wendy Waszut-Barrett, a historic stage specialist with a doctorate in theater arts, uncovered a new treasure trove in the attic: around 250 painted stage sets depicting scenes from 1879 to 1902.
“I had colleagues who said there was scenery up in the attic, so I asked to poke around, and then I was absolutely astounded with what was there,” Waszut-Barrett said. “I’ve done this for three decades, and I’ve checked with colleagues all over the world, and they’re all as shocked as I am that it’s still there and still intact. It shows the entire scope of scenic art in American theater — it’s that big.”
After her initial discovery in 2018, Waszut-Barrett returned to Leadville twice in 2020 to start cleaning and documenting sets that have been rolled up, stored away and covered in dust, some hidden away for over a century. With help from local volunteers, she carefully unrolled and treated the paintings to reveal what she estimates to be one of the largest 19th century scenery collections in North America.
“There might be hundreds of historic theaters with one piece in a set, but the Tabor has 14 theater collections spanning from 1879 to 1902, and I’m not even counting the later stuff from the 20th century,” Waszut-Barrett said. “They have two theaters worth of scenery, and that’s unheard of.”
The discovery of this exceptional collection has occurred during an already dramatic turning point in the opera house’s history. After helping to raise $600,000 to help the city purchase the opera house in 2016, the Tabor Opera House Preservation Foundation began working on plans for a $15 million rehabilitation of the building, which would include winterizing the structure to allow yearlong tours and performances.
Jenny Buddenborg is the current president of the Tabor House Opera Preservation Foundation.
“We didn’t quite know how perfect the term ‘National Treasure’ was for this,” Buddenborg said with a laugh. “The building itself is this amazing treasure in the story that it tells, and then lo and behold, we have this amazing historic stage scenery collection too.”
While the collection presents the potential for an abundance of new artistic, cultural and educational opportunities, it also brings an added challenge for the foundation, an all-volunteer staff that is now tasked with the conservation and preservation of these precious artifacts.
“It’s a big discovery with a big responsibility, because whether the Tabor Opera House Preservation Foundation wanted it or not, they became a major steward of a really historically and culturally significant acquisition,” Waszut-Barrett said. “It’s one of those moments where it’s so exciting, and everything’s possible, but it’s also terrifying, because the same story has played out thousands of times already in the US.”
Waszut-Berrett has seen comparable collections end up in dumpsters during theater renovations, either because the stewards did not know what they had or because they did not have the resources or motivation to keep them.
Buddenborg and her team are only beginning to come to terms with what is now under their care, but if they can get the funding together, they intend to keep the sets in the opera house and hopefully bring them back into the public space to share them with as many people as they can.
“We’re still trying to understand what we have first, and then we can come up with a plan for how to use it, but ideally we would love to continue using these pieces in performances moving forward,” Buddenborg said. “We also want to be able to have the public experience it outside of performances too, and there’s the potential to create educational opportunities and conservation workshops. The sky’s the limit at this point, and we are just trying to wrap our heads around how this is going to fit into our larger vision for the Tabor Opera House.”
The discovery of the scenery has drawn the attention of an international audience to Leadville, and on Aug. 11 of this year The New York Times published a feature piece on the collection, which has heightened the opera house’s presence on the world stage.
The article led to an increase in donations to the foundation’s conservation efforts, as well as an increase in visitors hoping to see the collection for themselves. Tammy Taber, who is married to a distant relative of Horace Tabor’s, is the lead tour guide at the Tabor Opera House. The touring season runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day, and over 800 tourists visited this summer. Tabor said that since the Times article, 50% more people than usual were coming in, wanting to learn about and see the scenery.
“We’ve had to add a whole other set of things about the stage scenery to our tour,” Taber said. “There are a lot of people coming in that are theater and set design people, so we have to know what we’re talking about. I’m in a whole other world now with this scenery thing, and it’s great.”
Taber has been working at the opera house for the past 18 years, and is the sole full-time employee. She began volunteering under former owner Evelyn Furman, and is now an integral part of the rehabilitation and preservation processes.
“What drew me here was Mrs. Furman and the history, and now what’s keeping me here is being a part of the history, being right in the middle of the history,” Taber said. “To me, this place is magical. I’ve seen it go into new ownership, new life, new longevity, seen it go totally on the map. And I’ve always been here with the same passion. I mean, I can go into that theater and cry the same tears of joy that I cried 15 years ago, I really can. So to still feel that, and then have the excitement keep jumping up another level and another level and another level, it’s pretty cool. What’s going to be next? I’m giving myself goosebumps.”
For now, Waszut-Barrett is donating her time as an expert consultant to help create a plan and build a strong foundation for preserving and hopefully using the scenery again in the future.
“I’d love to stay involved, because there’s so much to learn that goes beyond just documenting it,” Waszut-Barrett said. “I’d love to do restoration techniques and have that become a scenery restoration center internationally. I would love to see the scenery reused on stage — I’d love to move to Leadville at that point, if I can survive the 10,000 feet.”
The Tabor Opera House Preservation Foundation is continuing to increase its fundraising and planning efforts in order to accommodate the emerging needs of the space, and with enough support, they intend to make both the building and the scenery available to the public for decades to come.
“It takes a tremendous amount of passion, and our board exudes that,” Buddenborg said. “The nonprofit is going to continuously evolve, and we’re going to be growing our staff to be able to administer the vision of the board moving forward. We’re a mixed bunch, but every single one of us has a very deep passion for the Tabor Opera House, its connection to the community, and how we can all work together to make it a very vibrant space.”
To learn more about the Tabor Opera House and contribute to preservation efforts, visit TaborOperaHouse.net.
For a detailed description of Waszut-Barrett’s findings and analysis of the scenery, visit DryPigment.net and search “Tabor Opera House”.