By Parker Anderson
On February 20, 2022, the Elks Opera House in Prescott turned 117 years old. It is perhaps the oldest operating theater in the Southwest. In its many years, the facility has had its ups and downs, but today it is considered one of the major assets of downtown Prescott.
The Prescott branch of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (B.P.O.E.), Prescott Lodge #330, was chartered in 1896. During its first years, the lodge rented facilities to hold their meetings and gatherings, but they longed to have their own lodge hall. In 1900 they purchased a property on a hill along Gurley Street, just up from the courthouse, but due to financial considerations, they were not able to begin construction on a lodge hall immediately.
After fund-raising and subscribing stock in the forthcoming building, construction began in 1904. Originally envisioned as a lodge hall, architect John R. Minor told Prescott Lodge #330 that he could add an opera house to the building for an extra $65,000. This interested the Elks very much; not only was there sentiment in town for a new opera house (the Dake Opera House in Prescott had been demolished only the year before), but building such facilities was something the lodge did in those days. There once was a time when the United States and Canada were dotted with Elks Opera Houses.
The new building was three stories tall, with the opera house and storefronts on the first floor. The second floor was envisioned as a mining exchange, but in fact stayed vacant until 1914, when the United States District Court moved in. The third floor became the Lodge’s meeting hall.
Nearing completion of construction, Prescott Lodge #330 knew it needed a major attraction for the grand opening set for February 20, 1905. They shot for the moon and went after the Florence Roberts troupe. At the time, Florence Roberts was one of the best-known actresses on tour this side of the Mississippi. The lodge had a tip that Roberts’s booking manager was an Elk, and they leaned on him in the name of fraternal brotherhood to steer the famed group to Prescott to open the Elks Opera House.
The grand opening was a sellout, with Florence Roberts and her troupe performing “Marta of the Lowlands,” a then-popular play by Spanish-Catalan playwright Angel Guimera. It was considered one of the major events in Prescott history up to that time. In one of the box seats was the controversial Montana Senator William A. Clark and his wife. Clark owned most of the mining interests in Jerome (Clarkdale is named for him) and it was he who donated the copper elk, nicknamed “Bill” today, that sat on the roof from 1905-1971, and which was brought back to the theater in 2007.
Since then, the Elks Opera House, or Elks Theatre as it came to be called, has hosted virtually every kind of event. Movies, plays, political rallies, church services, weddings, funerals and everything in between have crossed the Elks stage.
In 2010, after years of fund-raising and hard work by Elisabeth Ruffner and others, and thanks to a grant from the Harold James Trust, the Elks Opera House interior was remodeled back to virtually the way it looked when it was new. It is now the Elks Opera House Performing Arts Center, with venues on all three floors, including classrooms for the arts, recording studios and additional performance space. The grand old facility is still the crown jewel of downtown Prescott.
This article is a preview of a presentation Parker Anderson will make at the Sharlot Hall Museum Fred W. Veil Education Center on Saturday, March 5th, 2022 at 2 PM. The presentation is open to the public free of charge on a limited-seating basis and reservations are required. At this time, the lecture is full, but there is a wait list in the Admissions Office. If interested, call 928-277-2000 to have your information added to the wait list. Face coverings are encouraged.
“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at archives.sharlothallmuseum.org/articles/days-past-articles/1 The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles and inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org Please contact SHM Research Center reference desk at 928-277-2003, or via email at email@example.com for information or assistance with photo requests.