Preservationist hopes opera house renovation moves forward

Robert Smith

Ralston is a little town on the edge of oblivion, and like gamblers with an otherwise forgettable hand its backers hope the second-floor opera house above retail space on its main drag can be played like an ace in the hole.

Ralston, which is on the Pawnee County bank of the Arkansas River, down the road from Fairfax, has a sleepy downtown and a population estimated in 2016 at 329.

Civic activist Don Taylor explains Preservation Oklahoma, Inc. recently named the Ralston Opera House, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1987, one of the state’s most-endangered structures. The opera house dates back to 1902, and has endured periods of decline since its first closure, in 1927.

“It is currently in disrepair and its future uncertain,” Preservation Oklahoma, a private organization that partners with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said in its May 2018 designation of the opera house as “endangered.”

There are at least three obstacles to enjoying this holdover from Oklahoma’s territorial era, the first of which is visibility. Ralston’s boosters noted in a recent press release: “Many have driven by this hidden treasure, never realizing it was even there.”

“I should just call it the ‘wow’ building,” Taylor said in an interview, adding that visitors frequently say something like, “Wow, I never would have guessed this was here.”

The second issue is accessibility. Visitors have to climb what for the aging, the arthritic or the disabled may be a prohibitively steep staircase to get to the second floor and the opera house.

Finally, and perhaps decisively for generations to come, there is the financial problem. Unless Ralston can raise the cash to carry out a renovation project, the opera house will probably deteriorate to the point where demolition is the only reasonable option.

“We need a lot and we need it yesterday,” Taylor said, when asked how much support Ralston needs to raise. The nonprofit Ralston Foundation acquired the Opera House last year from the estate of a previous owner. When the Foundation took over the property, the roof was leaking and the structure was in trouble, Taylor said. Enough money has been raised and spent so far to stop the leaking, but not much more.

Pressed for a figure, Taylor said the Foundation needs about $30,000 in the relatively short term to pay for a proper job on the roof, to address structural problems and to deal with windows.

The last time anyone had a grand vision for the future of the Ralston Opera House, Ronald Reagan was president.

An entrepreneur named Bill Hiser bought the Opera House in the 1980s and sought to make it the centerpiece of an economic development project.

According to an October 1986 story in an Oklahoma City newspaper, titled “Curtain Will Rise Again in Historic Ralston Opera House,” Hiser said he was carrying on a family tradition of sorts. Hiser said he had a great-grandfather who built the first opera house in Springfield, Mo.

The 1986 news story said Hiser was originally from southwest Oklahoma, and had traveled a lot during a career as a promoter of musicals and shows. While his Ralston Opera House project was not complete when the story appeared, Hiser was planning a community Halloween party. His vision for the final touch on the project was lights and a flag on top of the building. Ponca City, Pawhuska, Stillwater and Perry were communities he considered in his marketing territory for the project.

“I guess he was kind of ahead of his time,” Don Taylor says. Taylor adds that Hiser apparently had a dream for a day-trip route out of Tulsa, that would feature visits to communities such as Cleveland, Hominy and Ralston.

Taylor said Hiser’s project came to a halt when he suddenly died. The property passed into other hands after his death and the grand vision faded.

While Hiser appears to have been an investor looking for a promising base of operations, Taylor is a hometown boy looking to save his community. His family moved to Ralston in the 1970s, when he was in middle school. Though he was an avid student of history, Taylor recalls the opera house was just an old building to him then.

Having spent a decade in the military and eventually returned to Ralston, Taylor commutes these days to a telecom job in Tulsa and spends his personal time promoting his town. He has in mind much more than just a renovated opera house. There’s a 10-year plan in the works, and he likes to think there’s a possibility that Ralston could eventually become “a teeny weeny Eureka Springs.”

Not unlike other Oklahoma communities that predate statehood, Ralston has a reputation for a rowdy past, and the opera house is allegedly haunted — possibly by more than one ghost. While he admits it is hearsay, Taylor also passes along a tale of a love triangle back in the day that reportedly led to the suicide of a young woman who became infatuated with a traveling actor.

“When Oklahoma achieved statehood, it went dry,” Taylor said. “At least Ralston pretended it did. The town was founded on booze.” He explained he was referring to the alcohol trade across the Arkansas River with the Osage people.

If you would like to pay a visit to the Ralston Opera House, which is open on Saturdays, and to help the locals a teeny weeny bit, they’re planning a screening of the movie “Old Yeller” at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 18. Admission is $1. If you’re of a certain age, it’s bound to break your heart all over again.