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Theater That Copper Built

Posted to MichiganNow.org on Monday, August 13, 2012

INTRO: The tourist season is winding down in the Keweenaw peninsula. That’s the tip of the U.P. jutting north into Lake Superior. Copper mining history is kept alive there in places like The Calumet Theater. It was built with mining company dollars and workers’ sweat. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus went on a guided tour.

Our guide is Jake Pressle.

“No original roots here. I went to Michigan Tech a thousand years ago. Fell in love with the area.  It’s an incurable disease. Once you fall in love with this area it is impossible to fall out of love. I’m not part of it so much. It’s part of me.”

In 1890, Calumet was booming. The state capitol was almost moved here. Today, the Calumet Theater is one of many red sandstone buildings that reminds you the town once had 5 times more people in it.

“In order to attract their wives the mine owners had to build something that would attract them with the culture that they were accustomed to in the big cities of Boston and New York. The idea was to build a theater that would attract the top talent. Then it would attract their wives.”

Singers and actors like Sarah Bernhardt and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. performed here. So did this performer Lillian Russell.

“The Calumet Hecla Mine donated two parcels of land to the village to build the theatre. The building was started in 1898 and completed in 1900.”

Gas companies at that time said people risked electrocution when walking on a wool carpet and touching a switch. But this building got electric lights. It cost $70,000. It was owned by the town. Taxes poured in from 23 bars. Mine owners sat on their own platforms near the stage… on display like royalty.

“They were here to be seen. Everybody else in the place pretty much owed their livlihood to these people. If you were a miner in the upper balcony obviously you owed your job to them. But if you were a saloon keeper or a shop keeper you also owed your job to them because you needed the miners to come in and buy the beer or the work boots and work clothes and so on.”

The Calumet area had 30,000 people and 60 churches, from Finnish to French to Lithuanian. These ethnic divisions helped management keep labor costs down.

“In 1913 the miners were on strike. The various groups of miners were encouraged to stay apart from each other by the mines because they felt that if the different ethnicities didn’t get together then they couldn’t organize. And that’s why they had so many churches in the area because they were all separated by language and religious beliefs and so on. It was very much encouraged by management. There were over 20 languages represented here at one time.”

Management sent scouts to New York City. They targeted boats of coal and iron miners from Europe. The scouts gave them a meal and put them on a train for the UP. The immigrants didn’t know they’d have to travel to such a remote place.

“They would be stuck on a train for another few days coming half way across the country to, well this isn’t exactly the end of the earth but you can see it from here. If Sarah Palin can see Russia from Alaska we can see the end of the earth.”

Because a lot of miners didn’t know English well, mine foremen often communicated by hand signals. A foreman and a shift of miners were used in 1900 to test the strength of the upper balcony before it was opened.

“So they wanted the proof that this was strong enough when all the miners clapping and stamping their feet up here were not going to make it collapse on the heads of the townspeople. And there was a foreman on the stage who gave a hand signal and when he gave it they call jumped at the same time. And since the balcony survived they decided it was a good enough proof that the balcony could survive whatever the miners would give it.”

All 500 seats were filled when John Phillip Sousa conducted the U.S. Marine Band in Stars and Stripes Forever 100 years ago. This summer, the stars were Judy Collins and Leon Redbone. You can catch Roger McGuinn of the Byrds on September 29.

For Michigan Now I’m Chris McCarus at the Calumet Theater.

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The cheap seats bought by miners for shows and tested by miners before the grand opening.

The cheap seats bought by miners for shows and tested by miners before the grand opening.

A mannequin in her dressing room.

A mannequin in her dressing room.

Walls extending from the stage that create perfect acoustics. The murals were repainted in the 1970's according to what were believed to be the originals.

Walls extending from the stage that create perfect acoustics. The murals were repainted in the 1970's according to what were believed to be the originals.

Tour guide Jake Pessle first came to the area in the 1970's to attend Michigan Technological University. He met his wife there. He says of the copper country "I'm not a part of it. But it's part of me."

Tour guide Jake Pessle first came to the area in the 1970's to attend Michigan Technological University. He met his wife there. He says of the copper country "I'm not a part of it. But it's part of me."

The Calumet Theater,	340 6th Street  Calumet, MI 49913

The Calumet Theater, 340 6th Street Calumet, MI 49913

View from 60 feet above the Calumet Theater stage.

View from 60 feet above the Calumet Theater stage.

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