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The WYO Theater in Sheridan celebrates 100 years

David Brossard

The WYO Theater in Sheridan is celebrating its 100th anniversary. It opened its doors in 1923 as a vaudeville house and in 1929, it became the first theater in Wyoming to feature a “talkie” with the showing of “The Jazz Singer” starring Al Jolson. Talkies were early movies with sound.

Lotus Theater in Sheridan 1930s
WYO Theater
The WYO Theater, once known as the Lotus Theater, in Sheridan during its early days.

“The WYO has served as a community gathering place really since the [19]20s, where people would go and they would see and be seen, and they would see new movies, or they would see old friends,” said Erin Butler, executive director of the WYO Theater. “It holds this really special place in a lot of people's memories.”

Its first name was the Lotus but over the decades, its name was changed to the Fox-Lotus in the early 1930s and “The Western Theater for Western People” in 1935 when dude ranching in the area became an increasing part of the local economy. The theater was renovated in 1941 to update it from its depression-era look. A contest to rename it was also held. Sheridan local Thomas P. Kelly’s nomination of “WYO Theater” won.

The 1923 opening night was filled with glitz and glamor. The crowd was greeted by canaries warbling in cages suspended above the live flower gardens that flanked the stage and the red-paneled walls were decorated with stenciled designs, multicolored lighting, and even tanks of tropical fish. Butler said by the early 1980s, the theater had fallen into disrepair. It was closed in 1982.

Black & white photo of WYO Theater  from the upper balcony in the 1940's
WYO Theater
A view of the interior of the WYO Theater from the 1940s.

“There was some sort of disagreement between the folks who owned the building and the folks who owned the movie theater part of the building, so the movie theater folks essentially took their toys [the seats] and left so they wouldn't have any other competition,” she said.

The WYO was abandoned for several years until a local grassroots effort came together determined to save the theater from demolition. But their efforts were met with skepticism from others in the community.

“You can't imagine the pushback and like the disbelief of ‘Why is this important?’ and ‘There will never be a need for [a] 400-seat theater in Denver, let alone Sheridan.’ Those are some of the funny things but thankfully, they [those intent of saving the theater] persevered,” Butler said.

The WYO Theater reopened as a performing arts theater in October 1989. It’s since expanded to two surrounding buildings. A variety of different events take place regularly, including shows and opportunities for children, concerts, rehearsals, a dance studio, and stage performances throughout the year.

An event featuring 1920s-appropriate entertainment occurred on Aug. 25 as a tribute to the theater’s opening a century ago.

“In honoring the history of the Lotus Theatre, which is what the way it used to be when it opened in 1923, we couldn't imagine a better way than to revive the vaudevillians for this one particular evening and sort of make it a very 20s theme night,” Butler said. “People are dressing up and, in the theme, the music and all the selections of the entertainment are from that time period. And we'll be hosting a lot of informational booths about the WYO, what the WYO has to offer and then of course, talking a little bit about the history of the theater, and how we got to our hundred years.”

Butler hopes that the theater’s presence will grow in the community as the theater heads into its next century.

“It's exciting to think that we can focus on different programming, other kinds of programming, maybe a little more community outreach, and really opening up our space which we have been doing to other groups, so folks who might need a dance studio or might need a space for a music lesson,” she said. “It's exciting to think that we can become even more so that really central hub for that kind of performing arts activity.”

A full list of events at the WYO can be found here.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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