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Peter McCourt and the Silver Circuit

by Stephen E. Busch

Peter McCourt (1859-1929) began his Colorado theatrical career as assistant manager of the Tabor Grand in 1884. He moved to Denver in that year upon the urging of his sister, the second wife of H.A.W. Tabor, now known famously as Baby Doe.

Tabor and others quickly recognized that McCourt was an astute businessman, was honest, reliable, and loyal to family and friends. He eventually became manager of the Tabor Grand while at the same time he was forming a circuit of Colorado theatres and opera houses for which he booked traveling theatricals and opera companies. When railroad lines were completed to eastern Utah through the Colorado Rockies, he was able to add Utah cities to his circuit. By then he also had added some southern Wyoming towns to his organization. All circuit towns had to be on a railroad line. This was the Silver Circuit, though originally it was called the Colorado Circuit or the Tabor Circuit.

Silver CircuitIdeally this kind of organization would provide for more profits for all concerned: Management/owners of the theatres, the railroads, the hotels and the various kinds of services and service personnel needed by the traveling entertainers and, of course, profits for Peter McCourt.
McCourt's original contract (July 12, 1890) with the Salt Lake Theatre (to wit, the Salt Lake Dramatic Association) stipulated that he would be paid five percent of the gross receipts of those attractions arranged through the Circuit that actually were "booked and played." For this contract, McCourt had a partner, Al Hayman of New York, who was to receive "two and one-half percent"... on the performances of any other traveling company or companies ..." that he booked for the Theatre. Hayman promoted so-called popular entertainments, definitely not opera companies. Slightly more than a year later the contract was changed to a percentage of the net profits for both men.

There were many such circuits in America in those years, and the railroad companies catered to their needs. There were dozens of railroads that had personnel whose jobs were to work with the traveling entertainment groups, including opera companies, to tend to their special needs such as travel reservations and moving large quantities of luggage and crates. McCourt even advertised his Silver Circuit in Julius Cahn's Official Theatrical Guide. The 1896 issue listed nine cities on the Circuit and gave the names and addresses of railroad general agents in New York and Chicago to whom requests for information on the Silver Circuit could be addressed. A Union Pacific Railroad advertisement in the same issue listed six of McCourt's Circuit cities among other listings, describing them as "good show towns" that could be included on a cross country tour "at very little additional cost ...."

Silver CircuitBeginning in early 1885 and continuing into the twentieth century, the annual listing of towns in the Silver Circuit changed considerably. Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Trinidad, Salida, Leadville, Glenwood Springs, Aspen and Grand Junction were the Colorado communities listed in Cahn's Theatrical Guide of 1896. Either before or after that date there were also Boulder, Fort Collins, Caņon City, Montrose, Ouray, Telluride, and Idaho Springs. This list is not complete, but it does show the breadth of McCourt's Circuit in Colorado and the extent to which he traveled to examine theatres and make contracts.

McCourt made numerous trips to New York to promote the Silver Circuit and to book traveling companies. However, whether he was in Colorado or in New York, booking companies for a following year was always a tentative procedure. In any year a theatre might have dropped out of the Circuit for some reason of the owner(s) or because of theatre loss by fire. But almost each year another theatre was added to his Circuit, so over the years it increased in size.

In the early twentieth century the number of traveling companies decreased as movies became popular and a cheaper form of entertainment. McCourt had seen this change coming: In 1897 he was the first to bring moving pictures to Denver, and years later he was the first to offer Denver talking movies. As a result, the number of theatres in the Silver Circuit slowly decreased until it ceased to function, perhaps about fourteen years before his death.

McCourt was married twice but had no children. His circle of friends and business associates was very large. Denver newspapers eulogized this giant of Colorado's early entertainment history when he died April 5, 1929. The Denver Post (April 5, 1929): "Mr. McCourt's life, more than that of any other man, was written into the theatrical history of Denver... His name was recognized all over the theatrical world as that of a man it was good to know and with whom to engage in business."

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