Built in 1890-91, the Moroni Opera House is significant under criterion C as a rare building type and an example of late-nineteenth century vernacular architecture in Moroni, the surrounding area, and throughout Utah. Opera houses were among the common types of entertainment facilities
erected in late-nineteenth century Utah. This building is one of the few remaining opera houses statewide and is the oldest and one of the few surviving public structures, along with a historic church (1889, now City Hall), remaining in Moroni. Although in damaged condition, the building is
relatively intact architecturally and still features stone and brick walls, original door and window openings, and the large interior hall with remnants of the original wall paintings. The Moroni Opera House is also significant under criterion A, for its association with an important period of cultural growth in Moroni during the period 1890-1920s. It is representative of community development in the “classic Mormon Village” moving from an essentially agricultural economy into agri-commerce and manufacturing near the turn-of-century. This building also represents the importance of the performing arts for educational and recreational purposes in early Mormon communities.
Moroni was founded in 1859 by overflow settlers from Nephi who were part of the Mormon pioneer influx into Sanpete County between 1848-1869. Moroni grew quickly and manifested Scandinavian and Mormon culture, architecture, trades, crafts and agriculture. During the “Mormon Village”
phase,2 the chief industries were agriculture, including cattle and sheep farming, as well as lumbering. After 1866 when Moroni was incorporated as a city, life became more modernized and local commerce benefited from the telegraph in 1866, railroad in 1885, and commerce with nearby
Mt. Pleasant and Ephraim. “Amusements were introduced and as the town increased in population more modern privileges were enjoyed.” 3 Reaching out to neighboring towns, the city was big enough by 1891 to support an “Opera House” (built by Monson and Morley) that seated 1,000 persons.
The historic buildings in Moroni reflect the town’s social, economic, and technological systems. Sturdy adobe, wood, brick and limestone buildings were built of materials gathered from the resources in the local area and canyons. Structures built near the turn-of-the-century were more
permanent, substantial structures made of brick and stone, reflecting the stability and growth of farming villages into permanent Utah towns. The stone, adobe, and brick Moroni Opera House is expressive of the level of local craftsmanship at the turn-of-the-century during an increase in the
building of commercial, civic and social buildings, while also expressive of the importance of arts and culture in the community.
The Moroni Opera House reflects late nineteenth-century characteristics of the Mormon cultural identity of self-reliance and community cooperation. Amusements were a much needed diversion in the rural Utah communities, and were held in schools and churches until more specialized social
halls could be built. Realizing that good, clean entertainment was a major factor in alleviating some of the worries and hardships incident to pioneer life, a dance orchestra was organized and socials and dramas were encouraged to the extent that local theatrical talent was trained to the
demands of necessity.
The Moroni Opera House was constructed on Main Street in 1891 to encourage Moroni’s civic development, and was the largest and best equipped opera house in Sanpete County. Two prominent local men, Mons Monson, a county treasurer, and T.J. Morley, a local musician, collaborated to fund, build and manage the Moroni Opera House. It is the oldest public building in Moroni, and one of the few remaining pre-movie era theaters in Utah, as well as one of only four known existing opera houses in Utah today.
The Opera House represents the social and economic growth of Moroni beyond its original homesteading/farming character into an active community with an opera house that provided an important social center for residents of Sanpete County. During the 1880s through 1920s (after
which moving picture theaters replaced opera houses), local, regional and national opera troupes traversed the Utah circuit on a regular basis. Moroni city was noted for its fine orchestras which played for performances and events at the Opera House. Many groups of national and even international fame reportedly played in Moroni. Performers included home grown talent and the much anticipated traveling vaudeville and theater groups. Stock companies from around the country performed at the Opera House. On the walls were pictures of all the stars who played there, such as future movie actor Victor Jory. The Moroni Opera House featured one of the finest opera stages in Utah and was said to be “one of the most popular and beautiful opera houses in Southern Utah at the time.”
The stage was unusually spacious for a rural theater and measured 35 by 25 ft. The stage was lavishly decorated with elaborate scenery, some of which was imported from Chicago and autographed by travelling performers. Performers also relied upon local props from Moroni businesses. Actors wore authentic costumes. Money was scarce, so the locals cut pine trees and
sold them in order to pay actors and cover admission to shows.
The need for a place to hold community activities and performing arts events is evident in newspaper accounts in the Manti Sentinel of its construction. Apparently the need was such that the building was used for dances while construction of the stage and remainder of the building was
October 21, 1890:
Our opera house is now covered in, plastering begins to day and in a short time we expect to have it ready for use.
December 5, 1890:
There are six carpenters, one painter, and one plasterer, at work on the new Opera House, they are rushing in the work and if all is well will open on the 10th, … for dancing. The foundation for the stage and dressing rooms are laid, and walls will soon be completed. When it is finished it will be a credit to its owners.
December 16, 1890:
Our city is growing and we must grow with it or be left behind. We are furnishing places for amusement and recreation for our people, and to acommodate [sic] those who are traveling with entertainments.
Our new opera house opened on the 10th with a free dance. The house was well filled, and all seemed to enjoy themselves, both young and old, irrespective of creeds, appreciated the free invitation of the proprietors.
December 23, 1890:
The Opera House comes in very handy as a place for dancing and other amusements. To-night another wedding-dance takes place; that of Hans Arnoldus and Mary Mallinson.
The work in the stage part of the Opera House is progressing very favorably, and with the force of men employed will soon be completed, under the able management of Mons Monson.
December 30, 1890:
Our Opera House is being rushed to completion. When finished it will be a convenient place for amusement, which we have needed for some time.
March 3, 1891:
There was a dance in the Opera House last night. There are conveniences in the house, and it will be used constantly during the season. Brother Monson has persevered in his labor, and now it is a credit to himself and the place.
From these accounts it appears that the now-removed frame stage was original to the building in 1891. The Moroni Opera House with its impressive stage was a popular and successful enterprise, as well as a civic center where locals gathered to socialize and hold events. The building with it’s spacious floor and orchestra pit was used extensively for dances and “general amusements”, plays, musicals, vaudeville shows, and also to show movies, as well as town meetings and political events.
The Moroni Opera House was used for live performances and other entertainment from 1891 until 1915. After the turn of the century, “movie mania” was sweeping the country and replaced the need for travelling theatrical companies. Movies were shown at the Moroni Opera House for a
time, until the Kozy Theater became Moroni’s premier movie house in 1915. The Opera House remained architecturally intact and mostly original until it ceased being used for entertainments in the 1920s.
By 1930, the Opera House had been converted into the Monson Flour Mill and used to mill and store grain and flour. From the 1940s through the 1960s it was used for storage by the Moroni Feed Co. In 1969 Eldon and Grace Westenskow purchased the building and used it for storage until 1989 when it was purchased and used by Roger Cook. Finally in 1994, the Opera House was purchased by the Moroni Heritage Development Committee. They plan to renovate the building and stage to be used by this rural community with a population of approximately 1,200. Plans are to return it to its original use as a location for local cultural events, including theater, musicals, receptions, conventions, dinners, recitals, meetings, reunions and exhibits.