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Wilson’s Czech Opera House rising from the ashes

Before the 2009 fire, the Wilson Czech Opera House looked more like this photo.
Before the 2009 fire, the Wilson Czech Opera House looked more like this photo. Courtesy photo

Without a doubt, one of the best-known buildings in Wilson was the 1901 limestone Czech Opera House.

The building stood for more than a century ushering in weddings, polkas and the annual Czech festival. But in 2009, the Czech Opera House was destroyed by fire.

Only the limestone shell remained.

Two years ago, the community participated in a KanStarter program – a GoFundMe site – to raise money to first restore the distinctive Opera House marquee that used to adorn the building. More than $15,000 was raised, according to Allison Ford, president of the Czech Opera House board.

Their hope now is to build an open-air amphitheater in the shell of the 1901 building.

A few weeks ago, stone masons began work to stabilize the walls of the building.

But more work and more money are needed to get to the point where the amphitheater can be created, Ford said. For now, it’s the next step.

“We have masons here and while the weather is nice, they have been tuckpointing and rebuilding the front wall,” she said. “We’ve had to cut new stone because some of the stone was so damaged by the fire. We had to take part of one wall down just because the way the open theater was designed. It was too far gone to use.”

The town served as a backdrop for the movie “Paper Moon,” starring Ryan O’Neal and his daughter, Tatum.

Known as the Czech capital of Kansas, the Ellsworth County community was settled in the early 1870s. A century later, the town was one of several north-central Kansas towns that served as a backdrop for the movie “Paper Moon,” starring Ryan O’Neal and his daughter, Tatum.

The town now has about 760 residents.

The opera house, Ford said, was the town’s entertainment center.

“It was built with our Czech heritage in mind,” she said. “It had a museum in the basement, a dinging hall and a theater company from 2000 until it burned down. A lot of kids and people had ownership in that building. In the early days, it was where traveling shows would stop as they came through on the train.”

More than $100,000 has been raised.

“We decided to take what money we had and get the walls stabilized,” Ford said. “They are starting to crumble. We had to do something right away. We’ve hired a fundraiser to help us raise money.”

 

Beccy Tanner: 316-268-6336, @beccytanner

To make a donation to Wilson Czech Opera House

The community has been awarded $220,000 in tax credits from the Department of Commerce’s Kansas Community Service Tax Credits, which can be used until December, and has a 501c3 nonprofit status. Donors are eligible to receive 70 percent in tax credits for their donation. For people wanting to donate to the project, they can send a check to Wilson Czech Opera House, P.O. Box 271, Wilson, KS 67490, or go to the website at www.wilsonoperahouse.com to make a donation.

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