The Opera House as a building type owes its creation to the burgeoning middle class in the post civil war period. The percentage of the population defined as middle class doubled from 33% in 1870 to 66% in 1910. This new leisure class had disposable income and a desire to foster an image of cultural sophistication. Arrival of the railroads also spurred the construction of opera houses and halls; as travel became easier and more economical, it allowed for the creation of traveling performance troupes.
Most of the buildings constructed for legitimate theater after 1870 were called "opera houses" or "opera halls" rather than theaters. Even simple buildings like the Hazel Green Town Hall and Opera House tried to distinguish themselves by name. Before the civil war, theater audiences were primarily male and the atmosphere was rowdy. In an age that defined labor as virtuous, actors were seen as "drunks" or "vagabonds," who did not want to make a moral living. Consequently the word "theater had a negative association.
To keep a cultured image, the term "Opera House" was used. Opera house managers under scored their image by utilizing the "off" for lecture series, religious revivals, school graduations and other "wholesome" events.
Two distinctly different forms were built. The "Opera Hall" was typically a slightly more than utilitarian space, like a meeting hall. Typically it was built on the second or third floor of a commercial building to allow retail uses below that would subsidize its operation costs. The seating was typically not inclined and was relatively limited.
Opera houses, like the Oshkosh Grand Opera House, were more ornate than opera halls and had a larger seating capacity. Houses were more likely to be stand-alone buildings, with access to the auditorium at the ground level. Seating was inclined and arranged in a radius to create good sight lines.
Typically, wealthy local philanthropists built opera houses to raise cultural standards of the community and showcase their own wealth and cultural sophistication. 1889 Captain Andrew Tainter, financed the Mabel Tainter Memorial Hall as a tribute to his eldest daughter, who died while away at college. Likewise, brewery magnate Frederick Pabst was the benefactor of the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee. Built in 1895 for $300,000, it was touted as almost "thoroughly fireproof" and was one of the first theaters in the state with a cantilevered balcony, which allowed all seats to have an unobstructed view of the stage.
Although the term "Opera House" conjures up images of high brow entertainment, vaudeville shows were a staple of entertainment and often the "bread and butter" of opera house revenue. Vaudeville shows were variety acts, mixing magic, vocals, juggling, animal acts, and skits with occasional celebrity appearances. Ethnic humor was a large part of traveling shows and was wildly popular among Wisconsin's ethnically conscious immigrants. The low brow appeal of vaudeville shows was targeted for a general audience.
More examples from the National Register:
Mt. Horeb Opera Block, Mount Horeb
Tainter, Mabel, Memorial Building, Menomonie
Star Theatre, Argyle
Pabst Theater, Milwaukee
Oshkosh Grand Opera House, Oshkosh