The stage is set for social change
"Remodeling Plans for Old Opera House Will Leave Only Memories of Range's Colorful Cultural Center of Yesterday," declared a headline in the Virginia, Minnesota, Mesabi Daily News on January 30, 1958. The article explained that the city's Socialist Opera House was being renovated as a retail and office building by its owners, the local chapter of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, who had bought it in 1955 for $125,000: "The gilt has worn away and once-gleaming white boxes and balcony sections are discolored. . . . Up in the rafters, above the stage rigging, is lashed a wooden boat which once sailed a water-tank in the stage floor."
The article described the building's significance for its community: "Old timers recall the famous names who appeared there, the productions in which live horses were used on the stage, the countless plays produced by local actors and the stormy political meetings held during one of its most controversial eras." Virginia's Socialist Opera House was one of many halls built in communities across the nation where concentrations of Finnish immigrants had settled. Most of the halls served a dual purpose, encapsulated in the unusual pairing of the words "socialist" and "opera" carved over the Virginia hall's entrance. Used for dances, gymnastic performances, and stage plays, they also provided meeting places for like-minded Finns, many of them laborers who embraced socialist ideals. The Socialist Workers' Organization of Virginia built the Virginia hall. Its mission statement outlined its goals: With the help of plays "it was possible to draw audiences unaware of the [socialist] movement to hear agitators' speeches, poems, songs and such material with which it was possible to elevate their knowledge."
The most significant moment in the building's long history came in 1916, during a miners' strike that rocked the Iron Range. The Socialist Opera became the headquarters for the local strike committee and for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a national organization that had come to town to direct the strike effort. Fiery, emotionally charged speeches and rallies were staged at the Opera House, with IWW leaders' speeches translated into the workers' many languages. The strike was considered lost by many, and mining companies throughout the Iron Range blacklisted Finnish workers. But the IWW held out at the Opera House and supported a loggers' strike later that year. For many, the building came to symbolize workers' struggles for equality, and for the rest of its tenure as a public building it remained in the hands of workers' organizations, from cooperatives to, eventually, unions.
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