This letter is meant to serve
as an urgent plea to those who control the fate of the Old Opera
House Theatre in Kooskia, Idaho. As a cultural focal point, it has provided loyal
service to the community whenever called upon ... But, as an historical landmark, its
significance may not be fully appreciated to the extent that is deserved.
In 1912, the newly constructed
building was simply known as the Kooskia Opera House. In those first years of its
existence, its stage provided a nurturing proving ground for a young lady, Lena Corinne
Taylor, who would later rise to fame as one of the Jazz Age's most prolific recording
artists, Miss Lee Morse. Only a handful of structures connected to Lee Morse still exist
anywhere in the country and the Old Opera House Theatre building on Main Street is,
perhaps, the finest of them. According to the biographical data currently available to us,
this building is one of her earliest known performance venues still in existence. Lena,
born in 1897, was only fifteen years old when she first graced the Opera House stage in
Kooskia, although she had already been singing in public for twelve years. The local
audience immediately recognized and appreciated her extraordinary singing talent. In turn,
such enthusiastic encouragement must have given further support to Lena's professional
ambition. In some measure, we have the Kooskia Opera House stage to thank for her catalog
of 200 exquisite Jazz recordings, unparalleled by any other.
The opera house has served
many purposes in its 95 year history but, thanks to the heroic efforts and personal energy
of its current owners, it was restored in 1994 and put back into theatrical service for
the first time in seven decades. By doing so, the memory and cultural significance of this
Kooskia landmark will not be lost to a new generation of patrons in the Clearwater Valley
If the Kooskia Opera House
building enters into a new era of neglect and repurpose, it may not survive long enough to
see its second rebirth as a theatre. If regarded solely as a commercial venue, and not as
an historic treasure needing protection, it's age may bring such serviceability into
serious question. The temptation to replace it with a modern structure with modern
amenities may prove too irresistible for a new and indifferent owner. Such a bottom line
would represent a tragic loss and an unaffordable sacrifice to the history of Kooskia and,
in turn, the professional memory of Miss Lee Morse.
In appreciation of your
My warmest regards,
Lena Taylor & the
Kooskia Opera House
Morse, the popular Jazz Age songbird, was born Lena Corinne
Taylor on November 30th, 1897. In 1908, when she was eleven years old, her family moved to
Kooskia, Idaho and settled on a farm at the Middlefork of the Clearwater River near Maggie
The photo above shows Lee posing with members of
her family in front of the family-owned Blondin Bros. Circus train car in Kooskia. This
photo was most likely taken in 1912, the same year that the brand new Kooskia Opera House
was erected. Lee was no stranger to show business at this point in her life since she began
performing in front of audiences at the age of 3. One can only imagine her excitement
about a community opera house being built at the very same time that her incredible
singing talent was coming into full flower. The timing could not have been better! ...
Until recently, it was simply an obvious assumption that she had performed regularily at
the opera house. But hard evidence has now proven this assumption to be true. We have
found several microfilm pages from "The Kooskia Mountaineer",
the local weekly newspaper during that period.
KOOSKIA, IDAHO, NOVEMBER 13, 1914
KOOSKIA, IDAHO, DECEMBER 17, 1914
If you would like to learn more about Lee Morse
and listen to her recordings, please visit the following websites:
In 1908, the Taylor family relocated to a farm homestead 3
miles east of Kooskia. Today, the original location is easy to locate thanks to a handful
of rare family photos of the farm that have been preserved. (Many thanks to Arod
Taylor!). When traveling east on Highway 12 (towards Missoula), drive 3 miles past the
Kooskia turnoff and look for the "Mile 77" marker. The Taylor homestead location
is just beyond this point on the left side of the highway. There are two newer structures
that occupy the EXACT same footprint of the original buildings (a home and a barn/shack)
* PLEASE NOTE: This is PRIVATE
Any visitors should respect the privacy of the current owners. When I made a recent
visit to Kooskia, the owner allowed me access to the site in order to take the videos
posted here. But without such permission, you will not need to trespass in order to view
the property and enjoy the Clearwater River; there are a couple of small nearby rest area
pullouts on the right side of the highway to park your car. On a hot day, you can even
swim in Lena's river, at the exact same spot where she did back in 1908! Just look for
"Glen's Rock" and you will know that you're in the right spot...
In July/August, 2006, I took a
research trip to Kooskia and shot some (very amateur and somewhat repetitive:-) video of
my time there. Please note that this video was taken EARLY during my visit. A few of the
videos state, incorrectly, that Lee lived in the area from 1908-1920. Subsequent research
has revealed that she actually left the Kooskia area in 1915 and went to
Wallace, a small mining town in the northern part of Idaho. It is not known yet how long
she stayed in Wallace ... but we do know that she gave birth to her son, Jack, there in
When listening to Lee's voice, you can hear the full range of cultural
influences that gave it birth -the dust and grit of a lonely mountain trail, the
spark and crackle of a gypsy campfire and the playful chirps and warbles that echo
throughout a canyon valley. And, since she started her singing career in promotion of her
father's ministry, there had always been a subtle undertone of fire and brimstone as well
to punctuate her performances. These were all the qualities that she inherited from her
rustic upbringing. But, when Lee found her own way in 1920, she left the mountain
campfires behind in favor of big city nightclubs and neon. Despite her conversion to an
urbane lifestyle, Lee did not replace her fundamental singing style, she complimented it.
She let the new influences of popular Jazz, blues and torch singing integrate seamlessly
into her Vaudeville repertoire to sand down its sharper edges. Her hardscrabble past lent
credibility to her blues delivery and provided an authenticity that delighted countless
audiences throughout the Roaring 20s.
foundation of Lee's voice came from her childhood. Some may call it "Hillbilly",
or "Southern", or "Western" ... but whatever you want to call it, it
originated from places like the Clearwater Valley.
For this reason, I decided to create a special video
songbook that allows the listener to experience Lee's music in the context of her young
teenage life in Kooskia, returning her voice to the Clearwater Valley. In my opinion, this
is the BEST place to listen to a Lee Morse recording, the three mile trip into town and
back between mile markers 74 and 77. Apart from today's modern highway, this is what the
route would have looked like to Lee as she made her way to school each morning either by
foot or on horeseback. Her robust singing voice, echoing throughout the canyon walls provided the
same service as a school bell!
The first video in this series is a drive through Kooskia itself, along Main
Street, as Lee sings her own composition called "Main Street" from 1928.
If you look closely, you will be able to see the Kooskia Opera House building at the left
of the screen ( 1:12 - 1:18 ) as we travel through town...
It's long past time to rescue Lee Morse from the shadows of the past, and to shine
a bright footlight back onto her extraordinary and largely forgotten contribution to the
Jazz Age. The Kooskia Opera House is one of the last remaining structures
connected to her past, and is, perhaps, the most important. There is only ONE
Kooskia Opera House. If it gets repurposed, or torn down, that history will be lost to us forever.
If you consider yourself to be a Lee Morse
fan, I am asking you to take a few minutes to write a short letter, or even just a simple
paragraph to indicate your support in preserving the opera house as it stands today -as an
active theatrical venue for local talent. Just follow the suggested content and format of
my own letter at the top of this page. If you have indifferent feelings towards the opera
house itself, perhaps you can just focus your thoughts in regard to the importance of
Lee's contribution to the Jazz Age. I will then collect these letters and publish them here if permission to do so is granted by the author.
(Pleeeeeease say YES!)...
Return to this website often to review the
ongoing letter contributions and news updates.
_ _ _
Further suggestions for the more
seriously inclined: Stay tuned! The Greater Kooskia Chamber of Commerce is
currently considering a potential plan to purchase the opera house
building from the current owners and to, hopefully, operate it as a for profit
organization. This will allow interested parties to purchase shares in this venture and to
invest in the future of Lee's opera house going forward. I will stay in close
communication with the Chamber of Commerce and update this website with news as it is