Friend, Nebraska at its conception, was called Friendville. The original survey of the town was made in 1871 on property owned by Mr. Charles E. Friend. The town encompassed an area of approximately fifty-six acres and contained sixteen square blocks, and was located astride the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad. Mr. Friend agreed to deed a large portion of the community to the railroad to assure the continued existence of the station at Friend. It was at this time that Friend became formally known as Friend.
With the railroad as its anchor, the city continued to thrive, and despite the ravages of a grasshopper invasion in 1874, the city grew in fits and starts to become a robust trade center for the area. A grain mill, located three miles south of town being one of the key components of the continued success of the community.
Within a decade, Friend in its rapid growth, had evolved what one might call a “sporting” reputation, where the hard life of the plains met with the rapidly evolving changes in society wrought by the advent of innovations such as the telegraph, gas lights, and even rudimentary electric service (one of the first cities in the state to offer its residents electricity was nearby Crete in 1887). Various forms of gambling, and other forms of entertainment were available in Friend during these heady days.
Sometime during this decade, (research continues on this topic), Mr. Joshua Warren, a wealthy grain merchant from Canada made his way to the area, drawn no doubt to the highly productive lands well served by a robust rail system and access to the large eastern grain markets of Omaha, St. Louis and even Chicago.
Into this environment, rich with the excitement of new and amazing technologies Mr. Warren undertook to build a large and elegant opera house and trade center, complete with what today would be called “mini-mall” shops on the street level.
This building was completed in 1889 at the cost of $40,000.00 dollars (in 2016 dollars this would be slightly over $1,000,000.00!). It featured room for six separate businesses on the ground floor, an opera house with apartments, business office, a couple of professional offices and the I.O.O.F. hall all on the second floor. All this in a building that covered nearly a quarter of a city block, which for the time and location, must have been an astonishing accomplishment.
Research done for the documentation required to place the building in the National Registry of Historical Places reveals the following:
Warren’s opera House is significant for its association with and in reference to the historic context “Aesthetic Systems: Itinerant and Local Performing Arts in Nebraska” and the property type of “Opera House Buildings in Nebraska, 1867 to 1917.’ Under Criterion A, this opera house is significant in the areas of the performing arts; entertainment/recreation; and social history, on a state leve1, as a well preserved example of an opera house building in Nebraska. The building retains a high degree of historical integrity, possessing the physical and associative characteristics to make it an eligible member of its property type,
This opera house is significant in the area of entertainment/ recreation, since it provided a place where the whole community could gather to attend dances and entertaining lectures. (See following table of Representative Entertainments 1886-1914).
In the days before radio, television, and sound movies, activities at the opera house were anticipated for days or weeks ahead of time, It provided a place for people to get together to have a good time and forget their troubles over crops, weather, taxes, the railroads, and the generally hard Life of settling the Great Plains.
The period of significance is derived from the original construction date of the building, 1886, when it was built by Joshua Warren, an “energetic businessman” (Friend Telegraph 10 Apr, 1885). The period of significance continues through 1917, the year considered to signal the end of the opera house era in Nebraska, based on declining numbers of touring companies nationally and rising numbers of movie houses and automobiles, The local opening of the first floor San Carlo opera House around 1908 and the Elite (movie) Theatre about 1915 took considerable business away from Warren’s Opera House; by 1909, most live entertainment had moved to the San Carlo. Limited choices in Warren’s opera House, plus its second story location, doomed it to a dwindling number of sporadic events.5 http://www.nebraskahistory.org/histpres/nebraska/saline/SA04-034_Warrens_Opera_Hse.pdf
To learn more about the Warren Opera House, including the two story outhouse, a friendly ghost, elephants on the stairs and more, come and take a tour!