From 1900 to today: The Pella Opera House

The Pella Opera House was Pella’s first 4-story structure, located in the heart of downtown Pella. The current building is actually the second Opera House in town. According to an article written by Ray Koenigs in the 1986 Pella History Book, an earlier Opera House had been built in 1860. That building was destroyed in a fire in 1883, and three years passed before there was talk of building a replacement.

The building was designed by architect Stanley De Gooyer and was built and largely financed by Herman Rietveld, owner of the Pella Drain and Tile Company. The Pella Advertiser of November 8, 1900 says that, “Mr. Rietveld has done more for the building interests of Pella than any other man in our city.” A business man with many interests, he was involved in banking, newspaper publishing, various manufacturing businesses and farming.

On July 21, 1900, ground was broken and construction began.

Today, in the triangle at the top of the Opera House, one can read the words “Opera House Block.” Block in this case is a reference to a business area building rather than a city block. The building was 65 feet high, 120 feet long and 40 feet wide. A few days before its opening, the Pella Advertiser stated that “the ground floor will be devoted to offices, an implement room, a heating plant for the entire building as well as the box office and grand staircase leading to the second floor theater. The stage is 28 feet in depth with an opening 18′x20′ and fitted with the latest scenery from the finest studios in the US. There was also a balcony and above that on the 4th floor will be a large room with a Brussels carpet, fit for receptions and banquets. Hundreds of incandescent lights will illuminate the interior.”

The opening play on Saturday, November 16, 1900, at 12:30pm was “What Happened to Jones?” The critic who reviewed the performance praised the orchestra, but complained that the play itself was devoid of any real plot to give it an interest and consisted in the sandwiching of jokes both new and old between the flimsy makeshift of a plot.

For several years admission prices remained at 25¢, 35¢, and 50¢. The management secured a variety of entertainment ranging from vaudeville acts to the world-renowned Hungarian Orchestra, which received rave reviews in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. In December 1901, the review critic states that 500 people attended the “Enemy to the Queen,” a tragic play while reviews of other events report that the attendance was not what it should be.

Building a large opera house that could accommodate 1,000 in its various rooms seems a bit optimistic for Pella, which had a population of 3,000 in 1900. However, it was difficult to travel very far, so every town depended on the entertainment coming to them. Nor could the builders have imagined that in a few years silent movies—not musicals and plays—would become the main attraction. Although the Pella Opera House added silent movies to its entertainment as soon as they became available, just down the street at 725 Franklin, Henry De Gooyer opened the Electric Palace. Here silent movies accompanied by mood music were shown from 1908 to 1917.

The use of the Opera House took an unexpected turn in October of 1915 when the Women’s Federated Club inspected its rooms and decided to rent them for a year. Soon they had papered and painted the ground floor and converted it to a “rest room.” Today this term is used for a small room with toilet facilities, but back then, it was a term used for a lounge where travelers and shoppers could “rest” for a while. It proved to be very popular. Women could leave their children with Miss Grace Visser, matron, for 10¢ an hour or 25¢ for three hours.

The Opera House became the Federated Club building. A few performances were still given in the second-floor theater. The editorial comment in the Chronicle said “a rose by any other name will smell just as sweet. . .we believe that this building by the ladies can be made a credit to the city instead of a dark rendezvous for rats, bats, and poker games as has been in its past history. Go to it ladies, you are the only live, public spirited bunch in the city; hurrah for you!”

From the time the Opera House opened in 1900 until it closed in 1918, it had a number of different owners and managers. Perhaps the most famous owners were members of the Harrah family of Las Vegas. John Harrah owned it from 1910 to 1913 when he sold it to Susan B. Donovan. That same year she sold it to Adam Harrah who sold it to B. Ver Meer in 1918. The Chronicle of November 28, 1918 reports that Mr. B. Ver Meer of the White Way Auto Company has purchased the Pella Opera House and “plans to convert it into one of the most up-to-date service stations in this section of the country.” The company must have changed its mind, as three months later, it was sold to the Farmers Produce Co. Bob Klein recalls that this company bought and sold pigeons and chickens. An advertisement in the Chronicle indicates that it was still occupying the ground floor in 1926.

In 1925, John Wynberg (Vol. II of the Pella History) located his produce business in the building for a short time. He bought cream, eggs, and chickens from local farms and sold Sargent’s Feed. Two advertisements from 1926 and 1928 indicate that veterinarian Dr. W. C. Ver Ploeg also occupied a space in the Opera House building. The Farmers Union Coop purchased the building in 1927. This is the business that I remember the most from the late 30s and early 40s when my parents “traded” at this combination produce house and grocery store. Every Saturday afternoon, we would drive to the back entry to unload our egg cases where we were given credit rather than cash. Then my mother would go to the front of the building and hand her grocery list to the clerk at the counter. The clerk would pick the items off the shelves behind the counter and add up the cost. Sometimes there would be credit left over, but often mother would have to dig in her pocket book for the extra amount owed. Last came that dreaded trip back to our rented locker on the east side of the building. It was so cold it took my breath away. Mother would pick out a few packages of meat and a quart of frozen strawberries to take home.

During the 1930s people would gather on the 4th floor to listen to radio broadcasts of Central College basketball games. In 1957, the building was sold to Neal Leydens and Herman Swank. During this time, it housed an antique shop with bowling alley on the first floor and a skating rink on an upper floor.

Logan Andeweg and Keith Aldrich purchased the building in 1974. The same year, Logan and Keith sold it to Lloyd and Betty Shanks. Betty sold it to the Pella Historical Society in 1987.

From 1967 to 1984, the first floor was the Gambles Hardware store. The City of Pella established an arts center on the 2nd floor in 1969 under the direction of Sallie De Reus and Sonja Valdes. In 1975, the space became a Recreation Teen Center.

By the mid 1980s, the building was looking a bit shabby. It had served many functions over the years, and its original function as an Opera House had been forgotten by most. Should it be torn down and be replaced by a more up-to-date structure or could it be repaired?

In 1988, the Pella Opera House Commission was established to acquire, stabilize and rehabilitate the Pella Opera House so that it could again function as a center for live entertainment in Pella. After a $2 million fund drive and two years of renovations, the Pella Opera House once again opened its doors in July 1990 for a season of events.

Today, the Pella Opera House continues to provide cultural and educational entertainment to Pella and the surrounding communities. It is a performance hall as well as a rental space for weddings, receptions, meetings, reunions and more. In 2016, a second remodel was begun, with the Opera House raising $1 million to update many parts of the building and improve the HVAC systems.

The Pella Opera House is proud to be a premiere performing arts facility in this area, drawing patrons from both near and far to shows in our historic theatre. In addition, the Pella Opera House continues to open our doors and offer tours of our historic facility to visitors to our community each week. The Pella Opera House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Our mission continues to be to preserve and operate an historical facility in a unique, intimate setting and to provide quality arts entertainment and social events to Pella and our surrounding communities.

Thanks to Helen Boertje, Sallie De Reus, Elaine Jaarsma and Bob Klein for research, writing and information on the Pella Opera House.