On March 25, 1913, people flocked to the new Bladen Opera House for a premier presentation, the Fisher Ship Concert. The Opera House, built by the International Order of Oddfellows, was unique to the area because of its sloping floor and electric lighting. For more than two decades, the auditorium hosted traveling Vaudeville acts, lyceum courses, and home talent plays. When silent moving pictures came out, Bladen had them too, at a dime a show.

P. C. Grandstaff was the promoter for the “movies.” Local musicians provided the piano background at what was sometimes called the “Dix Theater.” Mabelle Vonderfech Lewis and Nellie Werner Lockhart were regular accompanists. From the beginning, in spite of all the professional entertainment available, the home talent productions were greatly anticipated. On April 11, 1913, “Jedediah Judkins,  J. H.” filled all the seats and turned hundreds away, necessitating a repeat performance. A drama, “The Brand of Cain,” and a comedy, “My Little Partner”, were two of the best received in 1915 and drew raves from the local newspaper, THE BLADEN ENTERPRISE. Among the Bladen young people who performed were William Ruschke, Joe Rhea, Mae Denton, Hattie Iverson, Lewis Richendifer, and Isla Grandstaff.

The largest crowd ever to assemble at the Opera house was in 1921, when the body of Lt. G. P. Cather was brought home from Europe. He was Willa Cather’s nephew and the first Nebraska officer to be killed in World War I. Two thousand people filled the 337-seat auditorium and spilled out onto Main Street for the memorial service which preceded burial in East Lawn Cemetery.

Traveling road shows lost out to moving pictures in the late 30’s and 40’s and the live Opera House events dwindled. In the late 1940’s, Don “Turkey” Lewis renovated the auditorium, installed a projection booth in back and a movie screen on the stage, and opened the Star Theater. A regular customer for each Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday night showing was Antonia Pavelka, Willa Cather’s “My Antonia.” She always sat in the same seat, surrounded by her Children and grandchildren, who translated the dialogue for her.

The Bladen Improvement Club took over the theater in the 50’s, but movies gradually fell victim to television, and in the late 1950’s, the Star Theater closed its doors. After the last picture show, the theater was used for class plays and graduations until the Bladen High School gymnasium was completed in late 1962. Then the Opera House stood empty and unused, except for lodge meetings, for the next thirteen years.

In recent years, water damage has taken a toll on this beautiful and historic building, and unless plans for a renovation project are made soon, the Bladen Opera House will meet the same demise as many of the other abandoned buildings in Bladen have.

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