Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Story Notes - Small Town Opera Houses

Most of my Mick and Casey mysteries start with a title.  "A Fistful of Divas" was an obvious one.  If you're doing silly western mysteries, you've got to do a fistful of something at some point.

But this particular story really started somewhere else: with an opera house.

Back in the seventies we moved into our second farm, in a tiny town in mid-Michigan.  It was a town with devastating tragedy in its history, and it was only just recovering about the time we moved there, and thus it was unusually sleepy.  Almost inert.

Main Street, in particular, seemed like a place you'd want to film a movie.  It was a broad straight street.  There was a gas station, a store, a little restaurant and a post office.  Hardly ever anybody around to keep these places in business.

But the street itself was full of buildings, waiting to wake up and be a town again.  The gas station owner was kind of a keeper of town history and told us a lot of things about it.  One of the things he pointed out to us caused me to do a double-take.

"That's the old Opera House," he said once, pointing at a house down the street.

It was just a house.

A large house, but you'd never have thought it was anything but a place where a family lived.  But as I looked at it, I could see that it, like many small churches of the time, was built so it could have a large open area inside.  And it was Victorian, so the ceilings would be high enough to accommodate a good sized meeting room, though I assumed that originally the theater would have taken two stories.

The gas-station historian told us that every little town used to have an opera house by the turn of the century.  I started reading up on them, and found that indeed, they were very common.

They also generally never hosted an opera.  It's just that "opera house" sounded more upright than "theater" which to many church-going types, sounded like burlesque.  (This wasn't a uncommon sort of split in the 19th century.  harness racing, for instance, was something decent people might engage in as a practical test of a horse's ability to do its job.  Saddle racing, on the other hand, was something engaged in by gamblers and drunkards.)

So these small opera houses were, in essence, entertainment halls.  A place to host speakers and revivals, and traveling shows and concerts.  Community theater.

That aspect of the old opera house reminded me of the old Community House in the little northern Michigan town my dad grew up in. I spent all of my summers up there as a child, and the Community House was a place to look forward to. And it looked like an opera house, dangit.  Big and broad, with grand steps.

It started as a progressive college, which welcomed students of both sexes and all races.  After it was taken over by the city, it continued to live up to that Congregationalist/Quakerish concept of serving the community.  It houses the library and function space.  Back in the 1940s, the top floor was the basketball court.  There were posts in the middle of the play area, which you could use to screen away the player guarding you.  And ceiling beams made shooting baskets a challenge.  My dad always said that in those days, a home court advantage was really an advantage, as you know how to work around all the architecture in your way.

By the sixties, when I knew it, that basketball court tended to host rummage sales every weekend.  And auctions in the back yard.  A great place for collectors and lovers of old things. And not just old things: I got a great Bob Dylan t-shirt there. And I think that may also be where I got that t-shirt of Spiro Agnew as a cartoon bug.

It pleases me to think that every town had a place kind of like the Community House, even if some were smaller, less obvious buildings.  And it makes me wonder about those gentrified houses in tiny towns; the ones that have become boutiques and flower shops.  How many of those weren't just houses?  How many started out as something more colorful? And when I see an old house which had been converted to apartments, now falling down after decades of abuse or neglect, I wonder... did it once house joy and music and ideas?

And that's why, when I hit on that cute little title, A Fistful of Divas, I knew that the story would center on a humble opera house, and the chance that it might, just once, house an actual opera.

See you in the funny papers.

You can find A Fistful of Divas at Amazon and Smashwords, and soon other ebook retailers. (The holiday weekend seems to have slowed the distribution process.) (Amazon international stores: UKDEFRITESINCAJPBRMX.) Barnes n Noble, Apple iBookstore, Kobo, Sony, Diesel, Smashwords

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