In their heyday, opera houses were a must for up-and-coming Iowa communities that wanted to tout a cultural life in their town. All the rage in the 1890s and early 1900s, opera houses were found even in the smallest Iowa communities.

“While it’s debatable how much opera was performed in them, that was the name they were given,” says Ken Sidey, the executive director of the Warren Cultural Center. “The word ‘theater’ was frowned on by many, and ‘opera’ sounded a lot classier.”

Opera houses opened their doors to traveling acts — vaudeville, magicians, famous singers and orators — as well as community events like graduations and silent movies.

While in many...