Pioneer Theatre in the Boise Basin: 1863-1899 [Review]

Pioneer Theatre in the Boise Basin

Pioneer Theatre in the Boise Basin: 1863-1899

Charles E. Lauterbach, Ph.D.

United States: CreateSpace, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-615-73445-3

218 pages, $18.00

Entertainment at our fingertips is taken for granted in 2014. Rarely do we consider a time when a variety of entertainment options were hard to come by here in Idaho—long before Netflix, television, or even Hollywood. Dr. Charles Lauterbach’s Pioneer Theatre in the Boise Basin: 1863-1899 pays homage to the foundational years in Boise’s popular entertainment history. The book chronicles a relatively unexplored aspect of our state’s history when performers braved long and treacherous journeys to bring Idahoans an occasional evening of escape. Against this backdrop, Lauterbach examines the historical circumstances that allowed Boise’s theatrical entrepreneurs to secure Idaho’s place on the “show-town” map of early 20th century America.

Professor Emeritus Charles Lauterbach served on the faculty of the Theatre Arts Department at Boise State University from 1971 through 2001. Although his post-retirement research includes the theatrical history of the entire Gem State, his 2013 publication focuses on the city of Boise, beginning with the entertainment seeds planted in Idaho City and Silver City during the mining boom. By analyzing the decades preceding the 20th century, Lauterbach demonstrates how the city endured through years of entertainment fits and starts, until the widely respected “show-town” status took root and flourished in the new century.

Pioneer Theatre synthesizes Lauterbach’s research into a detailed account of the array of “entertainments” offered to Boise’s early residents. Drawing largely from his investigation of archival newspapers, the study enumerates a broad scope of activities including local and touring theatrical productions, circus acts, dog and pony shows, operas, minstrel shows, elocutionists, and such sensational events as “an exhibition of mind reading, hypnotism, and rope-tying” (123).

Four chapters present Lauterbach’s findings chronologically: “Gold Rush Theatre 1863-1869”, “The Lean Years 1870-1879”, “Railroads and Opera Houses 1880-1889”, and “End of the Century 1890-1899.” Each chapter is further broken down into a year-by-year account of the entertainments presented. Although this arrangement sometimes lends itself to extensive listings of production titles, cast lists, performance dates, and venues, the author anticipates diverse reader needs and invites those desiring less detail “to skip over some listings of plays and players and get to the many colorful anecdotes” (Introduction, xx).

Indeed, Lauterbach delivers as promised. He engages the reader throughout with amusing contemporaneous accounts of audience and reviewer reactions to performers and dramatic spectacles such as steamship explosions, sinking ships, children being carried away in the talons of an eagle, an “electrical duel,” a “shower of fire” (148), and heroic rescues by acrobatic teams. In addition to the approximately 600 newspaper citations, key figures in Lauterbach’s story are highlighted with 49 photographs and illustrations from the collections of institutions across the country including the University of Washington, Harvard University, and New York Public Library.

From the earliest productions staged in Boise’s Idaho Saloon, to the crowning glory of the era realized with the completion of the Columbia Theater in 1892, Lauterbach delivers a fascinating account of Boise’s pioneering years in entertainment. As explained in his introduction, the book is particularly significant because “…to date no complete history of early theatrical entertainments in the Boise Basin has been written…it adds another book to the relatively small collection of books about the nineteenth century theatre in the American West” (Introduction, xvii).

And so as he salutes the pioneers of Boise’s entertainment industry, I salute Lauterbach’s pioneering effort to document this largely forgotten history, and hope that it will encourage further exploration. An interesting read for scholars or casual history and theatre buffs alike, Lauterbach’s work helps us appreciate Idaho’s theatrical roots and the “show-town” we are fortunate enough to enjoy today.

Gwyn Hervochon is an archivist/librarian at Boise State University.

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