Romance of Omaha, Chapter XVI

When Omaha was very young and in line to be "wild western" in its customs, the people were thrown on their own resources in the matter of amusements. Theaters and other places of entertainment were unknown.

Parks and boulevards were given little thought in other towns of that date, but the founders of Omaha, with unusual forethought, laid out the new town with three tracts set aside for parks.

Only one of those tracts, Jefferson Square, still exists as a park.

Another is now the courthouse site, and the third was sold.

Today Omaha stands at the head of cities of its size in the acreage devoted to parks. Total park area is 4,021 acres, connected by 47 miles of winding boulevards.

Parks and Boulevards

Omaha's park and boulevard system is known throughout the country and the River Drive, not yet finished, is one of the most beautiful drives in the central west.

The entire park system, including boulevards, represents a value of $10,000,000 or more according to conservative estimates. As much of the park land was donated, the original cost of the property was less than one-tenth of its present worth.

Three municipal golf courses, 15 tennis courts, 14 baseball diamonds, 21 playgrounds, six swimming pools and one swimming beach, horseshoe pitching grounds and picnic facilities with ovens and tables are among the opportunities for amusement and pleasure that Omaha offers to its citizens. They are free with the exception of a small fee charged for golf.

Gorgeous Flowers

Gorgeous flower beds, shrubbery, magnificent trees, a zoo, bridal paths, a modern tourist camp and a large spring of pure water are other attractions that draw tens of thousands to the parks every year.

Parks, however, do not by any means furnish all the amusement and entertainment for Omaha people.

Five country clubs - Country club, Field club, Happy Hollow, Lakoma and Highland - with two privately owned public links, afford golfers every opportunity to indulge in that sport.

Two privately-owned amusement parks, with fine swimming pools, many private tennis courts and private swimming beaches also beckon to the Omaha resident to get out in the open.

Amusement Places

Among the outstanding amusement places of the city is Ak-Sar-Ben field with its magnificent race track, where every June the "sport of kings" attracts many thousands of race lovers.

A great coliseum has also been completed and the first livestock and horse show was held in it.

In addition to all the foregoing places of amusement Omaha has 38 privately-owned theaters of all kinds, a modern municipal auditorium, a community playhouse and numerous halls in which entertainments are given. The theaters in themselves represent an investment of approximately $10,000,000.

Handsome Theaters

The new Orpheum, recently completed, and the Riviera, finished shortly before the Orpheum, are two of the finest theaters in the country. They both present high-class vaudeville and pictures.

The Brandeis theater, opened in 1910, is the home of a popular stock company. For years the best road shows in the country were presented at the Brandeis.

The World theater, presenting vaudeville and motion pictures; the Rialto and the Sun, with pictures only, are the three other downtown theaters that present high-class entertainment.

Humble Beginning

The development of Omaha theaters was from very humble beginnings. The earlier theatrical performances were given in the dining room of the old Herndon house, Omaha's famous hostelry of the time, and on the upper floor of the old courthouse at Sixteenth and Farnam streets.

The first building in Omaha set aside for theatrical purposes was the old Academy of Music.

Located on the south side of Douglas street, between Thirteenth and Fourteenth streets, it was the center of amusement in Omaha for years. It was opened during the winter of 1866-67.

During 1870, John I. Redick built a large frame building, intending the upper floors to be used as an opera house. It did not prove very popular. On October 24, 1881, Omaha's biggest theatrical event, up to that time, took place. The first Boyd's Opera house was opened at Fifteenth and Farnam streets.

Pioneer Presentations

Fay Templeton was the star. She appeared in "The Mascot" and "Olivette," and the house was crowded.

The second Boyd's opera house, at Seventeenth and Harney streets, was opened September 3, 1891, with Augustus Thomas' famous play, "Alabama."

The most famous actors, actresses and singers appeared in Omaha through the 70s, 80s and 90s. Forrest, Booth, Patti, Nordica, Lotta, Frank Mayo, Stuart Robson and others were here.

A notable event in Omaha's history was the appearance in 1890 of Patti, Nordica, Tomanio and other famous singers in grand opera at the old Coliseum, Twentieth and Burdette streets. Later on for years this was known as Ak-Sar-Ben den and was the scene of the initiations and balls of the knights.

Old Orpheum Passes

A famous amusement place in Omaha was the Exposition hall, at Fifteenth and Capitol avenue, where Patti appeared in opera and Sam Jones held a revival.

The old Orpheum, that has since given way to a splendid new theater, was finished in the 90s and vaudeville made its debut in Omaha in the fall of 1898.

For several years the Burwood theater, home of several popular stock companies, was a favorite theater. It was later turned into a burlesque house and is still called the Gayety.

Other amusement places were opened in Omaha in the course of the years, but they have all passed away.

Today Omaha is finely equipped with places of entertainment, where winter or summer amusement can be had.

A municipal auditorium, recently remodeled, a magnificent colieum, owned by the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben and the numerous theaters are magnets that draw many people to Omaha in the course of a year.

As an amusement center Omaha has much to offer the visitor and to the resident is afforded a multitude of entertainments from one year's end to the next.

Chapter XVII
Return to Table of Contents
HistoricOmaha.com Homepage