Sixty-Eight Years of Play The Virginia City Players
by Katie McGunagle | Saturday Jul. 1st, 2017
For many, summer is the time of wandering, be it out of state or within. Living in Montana, it can be easy to forget that wandering down the road for a mere spell can bring us to the heart of history and adventure.
Virginia City is one such place. This epicenter of Montana history is home to over a million western artifacts, surpassing other reputable collections such as those in Virginia state. It is also home to a tradition of performance that has been ongoing for sixty-eight years.
For 106 days each summer, the Virginia City Players bring melodrama, thrill, and comedy to audiences at the Virginia City Opera House, a structure that began as a stone livery stable in 1864. This building saw the rise of the automobile and closed its stable doors only to reopen a few decades later when purchased by an enterprising Charles Bovey.
Bovey had been recently caught up in restoration of the historic main street of Virginia City and transformed the stone barn into a performance space, complete with a wooden floor for square dancing. In the summer of 1948, that season’s Miners Convention had its own supply of authentic summer entertainment in the form of a hastily written four-hour melodrama titled “Clem, The Miner’s Daughter.” The Virginia City Players were born. Today, they are the oldest summer performance company this side of the Mississippi.
Since 1948, the Virginia City Opera House has evolved architecturally under the feet of hundreds of actors, musicians, and singers. Originally built in the style of a nineteenth century theatre, the House eventually acquired a pit and stage and, in recent years, a heating and cooling system and concession stand. Visitors will still feel that they are stepping back in time despite the latter additions.
Bill Koch, the present artistic director of the Virginia City Opera House, had his first taste of the Players following graduation from Montana State University. Hired initially as a summer company manger, he was hired in 1988 as director by the original owners, Charlie and Sue Bovey. Once the Boveys passed on, however, the Opera House fell out of proper restoration and Koch wandered over to Livingston to start his own theatre there. In 2009, when the Players were celebrating their sixtieth year in operation, Koch decided to come by Virginia City for a show.
“I vowed to stay only one night,” he said. “But I ended up staying for five days. I was hooked.”
Koch comes from several generations of Montana natives. His great uncle owned the famed Anaconda Hotel, and his paternal family members lived and died in Ennis.
“There’s something about the area that is simply infectious,” Koch noted. “I learned from the original Virginia City Players, and I wanted to honor them by coming back. I have an obligation to the citizens of Montana and Virginia City to keep [the tradition] alive.”
When Koch returned in 2009, he found the Opera House in a state of disrepair. Original historic photos that once hung on all of the House’s walls had vanished. At that time, a lot of summer camps passed through and the Players were losing their sense of known history and tradition. Koch righted this quickly and fought to get the Opera House back, buoyed by his love for the structure itself.
“She’s 116 years old,” he said. “She’s a living, breathing thing. Other performance groups and people try to copy her style, but they fall flat. They just don’t know how to do it like we do.”
Koch’s wife works at the Virginia City Library, which is home to one of the largest historic archives in the state. Together, the couple spearheaded efforts to restore the Opera House to its proper form—including printing and hanging a photograph gallery—and bring the Virginia City Players back to their original platform. This will mark Koch’s fifteenth season as a Virginia City Player, and fifth year of living in Virginia City on peaceful wooded
“There’s a hometown feeling to Virginia City that you can’t find elsewhere, like in Livingston or Bozeman,” Koch said. “About a hundred and fifty people live here year round. We help each other out. The creative juices really get to flow out here.”
The Virginia City Players compose a company of typically fifteen members, many of whom have been performing during the summers for repeated seasons. Sometimes, Koch only has to hire one or two new performers to complete the company. His goal is to hire the best performers in the area, and sometimes the Opera House acquires new ensemble members from auditions held in Missoula. The company members hail from Montana, California, New York, and beyond, although most members call the Treasure State home. And, Koch emphasized, all of them are at least twenty-one—it is Virginia City, after all.
Audience members and actors become veterans alike.
“We have a regular fan base,” Koch said, laughing. “People just love it.”
So what can a typical audience member expect during an evening at the Opera House? Just about anything. The Opera House is family-owned and family-oriented, although the season’s program follows its own genres of a classic thriller (Dracula, say, or Frankenstein), a comedy or western, and a murder mystery. Because melodrama was extremely popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Players hold true to this tradition in their performances. Each two-hour show comes replete with a vaudeville act, a variety show of sorts that is new with every single performance. Ensemble members may present a parody of sorts—“In one, I come in dressed as a moose!” Koch said—a classic old ballad, or an improvised sketch. Audience members come away entertained and enlivened.
The 2017 season has already begun, and as the summer season accelerates, performances will draw more and more audience members of all ages.
“Everyone here loves it,” Koch emphasized. “And the thing is, even people living close by in Bozeman or Missoula don’t know about Virginia City. It’s important to get people down here to learn about Montana history, to step back in time, and have a fun time doing so.”
The Virginia City Players will be proudly presenting Robin Hood through August 6th, followed by Murder Before Tea from August 8th– September 3rd. The Players inaugurated their sixty-eighth season with Sweeney Todd. For ticket information, call the Box Office at 1-800-829-2969, ext.2 or visit the Opera House website at www.virginiacityplayers.com