Napa Opera House

Opera House

In June 2002 the Napa Opera House re-opened to great fanfare with a performance of Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. In the Opera House’s return to grandeur and cultural life in Napa, the press focused much on the illustrious past of the theater. What is often neglected in those accounts is the fact that the Opera House of today actually provides a much nicer theater experience than during its original run. The original Opera House, open from 1879 to 1914 was, in fact, beset with problems from the very start including structural deficiencies, low attendance, and the arrest of its founder on murder charges.

Built in 1879, the Opera House, at the time of its construction, was promoted as a solution to Napa’s entertainment needs. Designed by famed Victorian era architects Samuel and Joseph Newsom with local help from Ira Gilchrist, the theater was the project of George W. Crowey. In its original form it housed three shops on the ground floor and the Opera House portion of the structure upstairs. Built for $30,000 using local brick, it seemed set to be the toast of the town.

But things quickly went south for Crowey. On February 12, 1880 just one day before opening night at the Opera House, George W. Crowey was charged with murder along with his two sons John and William. While the show did go on, Crowey’s sons were locked up during the Opera House’s debut night. The elder Crowey, on the other hand, was able to post bail for himself. The arrests were the result of a vicious bar fight that occurred October 30 of the previous year while the Opera House was still under construction. In fact, two of the key witnesses were workers in the process of tiling the theater’s roof when the fight broke out. The Crowey family did their best to make these two men conveniently disappear, offering bribes which necessitated the County Sheriff tracking the pair down in Oregon.

John and William Crowey were known around Napa as brawlers and drunks. On October 30, 1879 John Crowey spotted his father talking to Louis Stickini, the proprietor of the William Tell House outside of that bar’s entrance. The matter at hand was the issue of damages caused to Stickini’s bar and person by the Crowey brothers on a recent night. John proceeded to accost Stickini who ran into the bar and attempted to lock himself in a back room. John Crowey commenced in wreaking havoc in the barroom itself, smashing and throwing glasses. One such glass targeted the establishment’s cook, Auguste La Reusch, who ran out from the kitchen to tackle John. This brought both his father and brother William into the fray. The pair along with another man, William Hyde, attacked La Reusch with billiard cues, a large rock from the street and chairs from the barroom. La Reusch received several wounds to the head after which he attempted to escape out the back door with John Crowey in hot pursuit. There in the yard behind the bar John caught and beat La Reusch several more times about the head until the Sheriff was able to break up the fight.

La Reusch, who could still walk after the fight, was taken into medical care, but his condition steadily worsened. After several violent seizures the next day, La Reusch died. The Crowey family and William Hyde were charged with murder. After the initial hearings charges were dropped from all parties except John Crowey who went to trial and received a guilty verdict for second degree murder. A conviction that was later overturned on appeal. These legal troubles marred what should have been a celebratory time for the Croweys and George Crowey’s health declined steadily after the trial, leading to his eventual death in 1882.

Day to day operations at the Opera House did not go smoothly either. The first decade of the theater’s operation was blemished by public complaints about the safety and comfort of the theater experience. Two months after opening the building was damaged by spring floods, which caused cracks in the building’s exterior. Throughout the 1880s complaints were lodged in various local newspapers about the lack of heat in the building during the winter, the “unseemly” look of the venue’s curtain, poor lighting, and, more seriously, about the theater’s potentially hazardous exit plan. An architectural task force investigating the theater in 1889 even discovered a smoke flue from one of the businesses below located directly under the stage. Most of these problems were addressed through remodels in the 1890s.

While from the date of its opening the building has been known as the Opera House, this is something of a misnomer. Opera of any fashion was rare at the Napa Opera House. The main fare consisted of musical theater, vaudeville acts, political rallies, and musical performances. Famous performers included bandleader John Philip Sousa, boxer Jack Sullivan, and writer Jack London.

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake caused damage to the structure. Lingering concerns about the safety of the building after the trembler combined with the impact of moving pictures on the vaudeville industry led to the theater’s closing in 1914. While businesses continued to operate on the ground floor of the building, the theater upstairs entered a period of dormancy, used alternately as an armory during World War II and as rug storage for a carpet seller with a storefront on the first floor.

The Opera House barely escaped demolition in the 1970s as city planners earmarked it to be razed as part of the original Napa River Linear Parkway plan to create a series of parks along the Napa River. The fight to save the Opera House was one of the principle causes in the anti-redevelopment movement which sought to preserve the city’s architectural heritage. Local business owners and history buffs were instrumental in getting the Opera House awarded landmark status on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. Because of this designation the city was forced to look into the possibility of rehabilitating the building. A 1975 report, however, deemed the cost of remodeling the building too high to be economically feasible for a private investor. The projected price tag for the required repairs topped $1.5 million.

Fundraising groups began working to buy the threatened building, which they accomplished in 1986. It took several more years of fundraising, including a visit by news anchor Dan Rather, to get the restoration plan off the ground. Work really got under way after a $2.2 million donation from the Mondavi family helped kick start the effort.

In June 2002 the Opera House finally reopened, hosting the same production, HMS Pinafore, which had launched the theater in 1880. In 2014 the Napa Opera House became City Winery, a venue and restaurant, combining food, wine and music under one roof.

After the August 2014 South Napa Quake the show went on at the Opera House. The structure received a yellow tag from the City of Napa, denoting that repairs were necessary, but City Winery was able to open within days of the 6.0 quake. The biggest casualty was the destruction of over 300 bottles of wine.

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Audio

Rebecca Yerger on the Opera House
Local historian Rebecca Yerger speaks about the the architectural details of the Napa Opera House. Audio courtesy of Rebecca Yerger.
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