Arriving in Leadville during the gold rush of the 1870s, Peter McCourt became manager of the iconic Tabor Opera House, which still stands on Leadville’s Harrison Avenue. His posting to this position likely had much to do with his family ties. His younger sister was the actress known far and wide as Baby Doe. Baby Doe married Horace A. W. Tabor, one of the area’s wealthiest mining magnates who built the opera house as an ancillary business.
Legend holds that Mr. Tabor and members of his inner circle quickly recognized Peter McCourt’s savvy as a businessman. By all accounts, McCourt was honest, reliable, and loyal to those he cared about.
For these reasons, Tabor promoted McCourt to the position of assistant manager of the Tabor Grand Opera House, another venue he owned in Denver. As thanks for his taking on this role, Horace Tabor built the famous McCourt Mansion, which still stands on what is now East 8th Avenue.
As proof of his enterprising nature, while managing the Tabor Grand, McCourt formed a circuit of Colorado theatres and opera houses which he booked with traveling venues and dramatic companies. As railroad lines opened new provinces from eastern Utah and across the Rocky Mountains, McCourt added these regions to his budding empire. Towns in southern Wyoming followed. Known first as the Colorado or Tabor Circuit, McCourt’s tour eventually became called the Silver Circuit, the name by which history books still remember it today.
The Silver Circuit grew year after year. While always subject to change, its venues generally came to include Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Trinidad, Salida, Leadville, Glenwood Springs, Aspen, and Grand Junction. Locations that came and went from the docket included Boulder, Fort Collins, Canon City, Montrose, Ouray, Telluride, and Idaho Springs. The Silver Circuit played a major role in bringing culture to the Old West, especially in smaller towns where exposure to the outside world was limited at best.
The Silver Circuit turned out to be its own kind of motherlode. Profits rolled in for the owners and managers of the theatres, opera houses, railroads, hotels, and service industries that all played a part in bringing these highly select entertainments to a new clientele. In short order, Peter McCourt became a wealthy man. His contracts with theatres included percentages reaped off gross and net receipts.
McCourt traveled often to New York City where he struck up lucrative sourcing agreements with the town’s leading theatrical bigwigs. He booked traveling companies directly out of New York and was able to consistently grow his circuit despite the shifting landscape of closing theatres and acts going bankrupt.
By the early twentieth century, theatre acts were waning with the technological innovation of motion pictures. Here again, McCourt displayed admirable business sense. Rather than fight the tide of change, he profited from it by bringing the first movie to Denver in 1897. Several years later, he was also the first theatre manager to offer “talkies” to Denver residents. The Silver Circuit only folded in 1944, fourteen years after McCourt’s death.
Peter McCourt married twice but neither union produced children. The Denver Post eulogized his death as follows:
“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.”