At Leadville’s Tabor Opera House
By Jaclyn Schrock
Michael Martin Murphy, recognized by many, as fostering “the birth of Americana music” some 50 years ago, was nearby Friday, August 23 in Leadville’s Tabor Opera House. The historic opera house, only reopened in the last three years, was an ideal location for the music Murphy is known for in keeping the western ways of life alive.
Standing outside the Tabor Opera House, it is hard to distinguish it as different from the other historic buildings up and down Harrison Avenue in Leadville. There are some buildings that have clearly replaced older ones, but the Tabor Opera House appears as well loved as the other occupied buildings.
When using the main center entrance, you see the stairs that take you to the second floor theater. The grand hall way is lined with photos of past performers. The ornate original stage, curtains, balcony and oil painted back drop reveals a “Showcase of the past, with a stage for the future” as restored in 2017 by the Tabor Opera House Preservation Foundation (TOHPF). Most of the people who welcomed and assisted us to the MM Murphy performance were in western wear or even historic attire.
When the lights went down, the audience was welcomed to the Tabor Opera House by the Road Manager of Michael’s small group. He instructed those who wanted three songs to download, to put our first name, email and zip code on the tablet that was passed around during the show. Mary Ann Graham-Best also welcomed us and explained a few things about the Tabor Opera House, as the Board President of TOHPF.
This summer and last, Murphy’s Tabor Opera House concert opened with a local Buena Vista acoustic guitar player, vocalist and song writer, Carin Mari. Carin was thrilled to be home again, traveling with Michael as her mentor for the last few years. Introducing herself as growing up in the mountains and learning to play guitar when she was nine, then writing songs about what she knew being all of 12, she felt like a friend. Michael Murphy was occasionally part of an inspiring story of history, music and country living where he heard her play at that young age. Now, out of college, with eight years of playing with her brothers in the Pony Express Band, she is mentoring with Murphy to learn the ways of performing music of the west.
Mari’s nimble guitar playing and clear voice teased us with her solo performance of homegrown country songs. Her newest album is called Queen of the Mountain. Although she says her mom is the queen, this song was about a girlfriend she knew since 2nd grade whose ranch Carin retreats to help where able. The song was inspired when the two of them were no longer on the road 50 miles from any cell service in the beautiful Colorado mountains. This “queen” is able to do anything in the mountains.
After over at least a dozen songs separated by Carin Mari’s colorful narratives there was a brief intermission. Many took the opportunity to stand, fold up the seats or walk and talk with the full house of mostly senior ears under a few cowboy hats.
Michael Martin Murphy is a name we immediately connect with songs like: Geronimo’s Cadillac, What’s Forever For, Wildfire, Carolina in the Pines, Wild Bird, Boy From the County, Big Iron, and many, many more. Anticipating his stepping on the Tabor Opera House stage we envisioned his sound in our hearts perpetuating the history and lore of the west. Being at ease being in the amazing, enduring Tabor Opera House we were comfortable with his sincere honest and consistent sharing of the old ways in the new times.
Murphy came to the stage alone for a half dozen songs. I couldn’t tell signs of his seven decades of life as he worked the strings of the acoustic guitar and banjo. He was singing and sounding better than ever. Between songs, he spoke often of either the song’s origins or the impact on those who shared the common life of the song. He named states and ways of the west that have the unique distinction of being country. He said that country music is played by, with, and for people who live a country life. He spoke of the joy to come out of church to snow peaks and blue skies found through-out Colorado and the west. He clearly was most appreciative of the Tabor Opera House being a venue he where he could perform.
Over the half century of making music, Murphy has not fit in any one music genre. He is recognized as being no more one style than another, simply Americana. Some have tried to describe his music through the decades as pop, rock, folk, cowboy ballads, hard-core country, jazz, and red dirt bluegrass.
He introduced his album to be released in October 2019 called Austinology: Alleys of Austin. This is a preservation of songs that may well be a memorial to artists who developed the Outlaws and Armadillos, Cosmic Cowboy, and Americana sound also considered the Austin Phenomena.
Some of the artists included in the Austinology album are Willie Nelson, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Kelly Willis, Bruce Robinson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Amy Grant, Randy Rogers, The Last Bandoleros, and others. Musicians also enlisted include guitarist Kenny Greenburg (Nelson, Bob Seger, Etta James) dobro guitarist Rob Ickes (Earl Scruggs, Alison Krauss, Vince Gill) keyboardist Tim Akers (Dolly Parton, Bruce Hornsby, Jimmy Webb) and more.
Murphy brought his electric bassist to the stage, Gary Roller. These two have been traveling and playing together 35 years. They played quite a few more of the familiar tunes. Next, Murphy brought back Carin Mari who played her acoustic guitar and tenderly sang backup vocals on the rest of the songs. She filled in many of the intricate licks of the treasured songs. She even did a high-speed western song with accelerated yodeling.
The sound of music by country folks also being talented performers was so well matched to the honor and integrity of the Tabor Opera House. Those of us with his music entangled in memories of being simple folks, maybe living in a VW buses, traveling the west to pick up work as a ranch hand, or staying home to scratch out a garden, were right at home.
The display for Michael and Carin in the entry helped us know we were in the right spot. We all put our name and email address on a raffle ticket drawn for a copy of Austinology. We also had the opportunity to offer a bid for a black acoustic guitar to be given to the highest bidder. MM Murphy had written in gold the words to Wildfire around the face and signed it. The proceeds were for the Murphy Western Institute (MWI) with one project to sponsor a ranch for kids in NW Colorado. The MWI contributes in many projects encouraging and facilitating education preservation and perpetuation of arts, culture, history and legacy of the west.
Michael Murphy is strongly rooted in the poetic, musical, history and lifestyles of the Western America. His song writing and music, as his life, portrays the unique place that originated as fertile prairies with long rivers from mountains of Indian lands to understand what is no longer easily visible today.
He was born in Texas, did some college there where music is treasured, but finished in LA. He returned to Texas, passing through other western states, including living in Colorado. Some remember him playing music on a couch outside Blue Spruce Records in Evergreen hoping for deposits in his guitar case. A cousin remembers him and others at Carabou Ranch in the early 70’s. From a Colorado pioneer family, Joyce – a Schrock cousin, and another guy worked as a wrangler tending the horses and cattle on the Carabou Ranch. Murphy asked them, “Why do you race those horses like you do? Come in the house and play with us.” She said she liked the company of cattle horses, and racing them is fun.
Geronimo’s Cadillac had just been released in an album displaying Murphy’s love of the west in his songwriting. September 1972, performing in his birth state at the legendary Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, Murphy had two nights of sold out performances with his opening act Willie Nelson.
Rolling Stone Magazine’s Chet Flippo recognized Murphy to be the “the best new songwriter in America.” Murphy and Nelson presented their unique music that was like the melting pot America had become. Their sound could not be kept in any one category.
Murphy, along with Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, and others brought a love to a hybrid of Country-rock that became known as the Austin Phenomenon and Outlaws. Others who perpetuated this music included John Denver, Jimmy Buffet, Gary P. Nunn, and others like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt.
Some of MM Murphy’s next events are part of the Rocking 3M Summer Concert Series. Thursday and Saturday, August 29 and 31st in Red River, NM and Friday in Colorado Springs, Michael Murphy sings on about the west.
Many of these details came from the website www.michaelmartinmurphey.com/about.html
Tabor Opera House, Leadville – past and future
The Tabor Opera House was built in 100 days in 1879 by Horace Tabor for $30,000, contracted by J. Thomas Roberts. Final construction cost $78,000, not including the cost of scenery and decorations. Tabor insisted on the very best. It is called Tabor’s “greatest feat,” although he is known for many financial and cultural accomplishments.
Gilpin County history focuses on the year 1877, having their Central City Opera House built and presenting entertainment two years earlier. Central City’s Opera House deteriorated into poor condition in the late 1930s. Three bold women spearheaded its recovery, and it is now considered the 5th largest opera in America and 2nd longest running Opera House.
Leadville history focuses on their mining accomplishments and Tabor’s contributions to their community. They downplay Tabor’s 1880 philanthropy project to build the Grand Tabor Opera House in Denver costing over $700,000. That building was removed in 1964 after many attempts to keep it open both as a movie theater and as a live theater.
Brick, stone and steel were delivered by wagon to construct Leadville’s Opera House. The railroad had not yet reached Leadville. Steam engines and narrow gauge track only went from Canyon City to Webster, Colorado in 1879. Freight wagon lines traveled treacherous roads to reach a 10,200 foot elevation to bring building materials.
Tabor built Leadville’s Opera House to thank the hardy mountain miners, growing in lavish wealth by the silver mining community of Leadville. The 3-story building had two store fronts on the first floor, the second was the theater, and the third floor connected to the hotel next door.
The renowned structure was then considered by some to be the most amazing building between St. Louis and San Francisco with its 72 jets of gas lighting. Tabor created the gas company which opened two days before the theater opened. The city’s company produced gas from burning coal also delivered by wagon from Canyon City. It has 16 inch thick walls, so has remained stable to celebrate its 140th birthday this year.
Tabor Opera House is deemed a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. When gold standard replaced silver, the area’s miners avoided Leadville. The opera house was sold to the Elks Lodge where it stayed for about 40 years, then was later purchased by a family who wanted to keep it from being demolished. They kept shows coming to include a long list of famous acts. By the mid 50’s they couldn’t keep it going. After 15 years of the City of Leadville and community support seeking grants and funding, the Tabor Opera House was taken from private ownership in 2016, with estimations of a $10 million dollar renovation project.
The Tabor Opera House Preservation Foundation now cooperates with the City of Leadville, being responsible for the site and its operations. Managed by a 7-member board with a team of 10 more technicians, a company of volunteers keeps special events, laughter, applause and footsteps ringing through the old building. Sponsors and sustaining members support the grants to fill in a sustainable living history. With such generosity and collaboration of historical friends, the Opera House perseveres to revitalize the old west. Tours of the whole building are available June through September daily, excluding Monday.
2017 assessments were completed for the needs of the building and potential business gains of the property. In 2018 and 2019 several major grant funds arrived; the National Park Service $500,000 “Save America’s Treasures,” Partners in Preservations $150,000, and Colorado’s DOLA $830,000.
Since the 2017 summer season, the Tabor Opera House has been able to host entertainment as a community events and performing arts center. Audiences have participated in exciting events from folk, blues, country and rock bands to cowboy church for Boom Days, comedy, poetry, youth activities and live theater. Events have been scheduled 1-4 days a week through the summers.
Michael Martin Murphy is just one of those events that help to raise funds for the maintenance of the building. Next week is the Hazel Miller Band.
Overjoyed with grants, funds partially from Boom Days and anonymous donations, 2018 improvements were funded for modern sound equipment and LED stage lighting. 2019 the goal is to acquire funding for a projection system to show movies.
TOHPF is thrilled to have gained the $1.5 million in grants, donations and income needed for the next round of improvements. Work begins in 2020 to secure the two most damaged facades.
Tabor Opera House details courtesy of Mary Ann Graham-Best, Donna Childress, and TaborOperaHouse.net.