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9:27 AM Wed, Sept. 19th

Prescott author explores history of Arizona theaters

There are all sorts of angles to studying an area's history. Prescott author Tom Collins decided to take a look at the theatrical history of Arizona in his book "Arizona on Stage: Playhouses, Plays, and Players in the Territory 1879-1912."

Collins has been in the theater virtually all his life, he said. Originally he wanted to act and then direct, but he eventually received his doctorate in theater history from Indiana University. Further, he and his wife had an academic career in theater at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville for 31 years, where he directed about 100 plays while he and his wife cofounded the Wisconsin Shakespeare festival, Collins said.

"When we moved here in 2001 ... I was looking for something to replace this very, very busy schedule we'd had for 31 years," Collins said. "It was kind of hard to just stop and have nothing to do."

After a friend suggested looking into the Sharlot Hall Musuem, Collins became a volunteer sometime in 2003 or 2004, ending up in the library and archives. That led to his discovery that the Arizona Territory had a rich history of theater in Tombstone, Tucson, Phoenix and Prescott, which was mostly not covered in print, Collins said.

Before "Arizona on Stage," Collins wrote a book on amateur theater in territorial Prescott, called "Stage-Struck Settlers in the Sun-Kissed Land," which was published in 2007.

"At the same time, I was planning to work on something about the professional theater throughout the Arizona Territory ... it turned out there was a lot of incredible visual material: photographs of actors and actresses, vintage theater posters," Collins said. "It's just fascinating to me. I like Shakespeare a lot. It turns out there were three major companies that visited the Arizona territory performing Shakespeare."

A lot of his enjoyment from writing the book came from the process of discovery, Collins said. He went through practically every newspaper written between 1879 and 1911 in Tucson, Phoenix, Prescott and Tombstone. This involved numerous visits to libraries in Tucson and Phoenix to look through microfilm many times. His research was facilitated by using the Library of Congress' newspaper archives for Chronicling America, as well as newspapers.com and ancestry.com, he said. Throughout it all, exciting things kept being discovered through discussions of new theaters and opera houses built at that time, Collins said.

But the most surprising thing was the number of Shakespeare plays done in the territory, Collins said. Though quite a few other melodramas were performed, there was a big following for the Bard, he said. Though the most famous actors of the time didn't come to the territory, many talented actors did, Collins added.

The book covers a good deal of what happened in Prescott, such as the Prescott Theater on Alarcon Street and what used to be the Patton Opera House, Collins said.

"It gives a pretty thorough documentation of what happened there and who was involved building these things. I think it gives a really interesting angle into the history of the Arizona Territory," Collins said. "There's kind of the misconception that Arizona's history had nothing to do with anything except Indian wars, gambling, prostitution, saloons, lawlessness, violence, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday. All those things are certainly true, but I think it's a misconception that's all there was to people in the Arizona Territory."

Collins is scheduled to give a talk about the book at the Sharlot Hall Museum, 415 W. Gurley St., at 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 20.