The first theatre company in Montana was formed in Virginia City in the 1800’s. They called themselves the Amateur Dramatic Association and performed comedic plays and recitations of famous works, such as Poe’s “Raven.” Their programs led with the quote, “ Ours is the land and age of gold, and ours the laughing time” and ended with the quote, “Old Times will end our story,- But no time, if we end well, will end our glory.”
In the summer of 1948, Dori and Larry Barsness, along with Larry’s brother, Jack Barsness, visited Virginia City. In the evening they went to the old Brewery where someone was playing the piano and Larry joined in singing the songs of Gilbert and Sullivan. Charles Bovey, who had recently started work restoring the town of Virginia City, happened to be at their table. He was a great Gilbert and Sullivan fan and soon devised the idea to create a summer theatre in the town with Barsness’s help. The three men agreed to create a show for the upcoming Miner’s Convention and within two weeks they wrote and rehearsed a half hour melodrama called “Clem, the Miner’s Daughter”, found four more company members, and created costumes. They fashioned a platform stage in the Bale of Hay Saloon and printed a program that read “SHOWS FRI SAT MAYBE SUN”. The show was a success and led to the formation of the Illustrious Virginia City Players.
The Opera House was originally called The Old Stone Barn because it was converted from a livery stable into a replica of a 19th Century Theater. The raked floor and the “pit” for the Cremona weren’t added for several years. From the first, the Barsness’s insisted on authenticity of presentation, from costumes to staging. Only 19th Century scripts were considered and were always presented “straight” and not as “mellodramy” or “take-offs” of the traditional style. The success of the Players through the years has more than proven the contention that such plays are more entertaining when not exaggerated.
Today, the Illustrious Virginia City Players is the oldest continually running summer stock theatre company in the Northwest. Although the company has passed through a handful of directors over the years, the Virginia City Players has remained a professional theatre company that recruits professional grade performers from all over the United States. Many former players have gone on to perform on television, in film and on Broadway! So sit back, relax and enjoy as the Illustrious Virginia City Players take you back in time!
“What is the source of all the bell, percussion and pipe organ sounds?” It is our Cremona photoplayer! The only one left performing in the World today!
In the 1920’s, silent films and vaudeville were accompanied by live musical instruments. Piano manufacturers began producing a wide variety of self-contained orchestras that could be operated by one person playing a piano.
Our photoplayer is a “Cremona Theatre Orchestra, solo style M-3”. It is sixteen feet wide and features two side chests containing flute, violin, bass pipes, xylophone, bass drum, crash cymbal, tom tom, tympani, snare drum, sleigh bells, tambourine, castanets, cathedral chimes, triangle and a train bell. It was manufactured in Chicago by the Marquette Piano Co. and was regarded as “top of the line.” No expense was spared in the creation of photoplayers, from the piano keys of genuine ivory to the double-veneered hardwood cases, newborn calfskin bellows and imported felt piano hammers.
With the advent of talking pictures, photoplayers swiftly became a relic of the past. Most Cremona’s were dismantled and each instrument was sold individually. Today, of the thousands that were distributed across the United States, only four Cremona photoplayers are known to exist and the only one still in use in a theatre today is our very own Cremona here in Virginia City, Montana. In 1950, our photoplayer was discovered in a Deer Lodge, Montana drugstore hidden behind a wall that was installed when the original movie theater was remodeled for retail use. So sit back, relax, and enjoy a sound only heard by a tiny portion of the human population!