“Whoever causes a smile to ripple upon the lips, whoever causes a gleam of joy in the eye where a tear drop is about to fall, has done something for humanity,” said J.M. Thurston responding to James E. Boyd’s speech at the opening of the Second Boyd’s Theater.[i] Boyd built the first theater in Omaha in 1881 on 15th and Farnam, filling the need for a hall with first-class acoustics. Because the Boyd Theater could not compete with the increasing number of moving pictures theaters, it closed in 1920. Throughout that time, it provided entertainment, leaving its mark on Omaha history.
Boyd was born in Tyrone, Ireland on September 9, 1834. He came to Omaha in August 1856 as a carpenter. In 1865, he provided freight across Nebraska and graded tracks for the Union Pacific Railroad. Boyd became mayor of Omaha from 1881 to 1883 and 1885 to 1887.[ii] In 1890, he became Nebraska governor. In addition to creating Boyd’s Theater, he established Omaha’s first pork packing plant. He retired from business in 1902, dying in 1906 at his residence on 1908 Davenport St.[iii]
In 1881, Boyd’s Opera House opened. The building cost over $90,000. It was fireproof and occupied 15th and Farnam St. Built in the American Renaissance style, it was a four-story structure built of stone and, ”St. Louis cold-pressed brick.” The auditorium accommodated 1,700 people and consisted of, “a parquet and circle,” for over 1,070 people plus seating for 600 people in the gallery. Three opera boxes sat on each side wall. The stair case was built out of black walnut. The stage was 45 feet deep behind the curtain, and five feet from the curtain to floodlights.[iv] Boyd’s Theater opened to a sold-out public on October 24, 1881 with the opera La Mascotte by the Templeton Company. This was followed by many famous acts.[v]
In 1890, the Old Boyd Opera House was sold to a syndicate led by O. M. Carter that become the Farnam Street Theater. The building, “completely fireproof and equipped with standpipe and water supply,” burned to the ground 1893. The spot eventually became the Nebraska Clothing Company.[vi]
In 1890, Boyd purchased a lot on the southeast corner of 17th and Harney streets from Gen. WW Love. He built an ordinate baroque masonry building, five stories in height. It seated more than 2,000 people and cost over $100,000 to build. The opening night, September 3, 1891, hosted the play, “Alabama.”[vii] Unable to compete with movie theaters, the opera house formally closed its doors on January 31, 1920 with the comedy, “Maytime,” playing the final week.[viii]
Burgess-Nash Company razed Boyd’s Opera House. A new structure, designed by architect George B. Prinz, took its place in the form of a new department store.
[i] Nebraska State Historical Society, “Out of Old Nebraska” (28 April 1983), The Schuyler Sun (Schuyler, Nebraska), pg. 28.
[ii] Nebraska State Historical Society, “Nebraska Timeline” (27 January 2000), The Banner-Press (David City, Nebraska, pg. 5, https://www.newspapers.com/image/556777943/?terms=%22Boyd’s%2BOpera%2BHouse%22
[iii] “Ex-Gov. Jas E. Boyd Dead” (4 May 1906), The Nebraska State Journal (Lincoln, Nebraska), pg. 8, https://www.newspapers.com/image/309497337/?terms=%22James%2BE.%2BBoyd%22
[iv] Jim McKee, “Boyd’s Opera House An Early Spectacle” (13 August 2000), pg. 99. https://www.newspapers.com/image/297787406/
[v] “Boyd Theater” (13 February 1910), Omaha Daily Bee, pg. 15.
[vi] Excavating Will Begin This Week” (31 May 1896), Omaha Daily Bee, pg. 8.
[vii] “New Burgess-Nash Building Soon to Replace the Historic Boyd Theater” (11 January 1920), Omaha World Herald, pg. 31.
[viii] “Cockrell and Burgess Mourn Body’s Passing” (31 January 1920), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 5.