Boise Pioneers James A. Pinney and Peter Sonna had much in common. Each of them came West during the gold rush to California in the 1850s, where they worked as miners before following the rush to Boise Basin in the early 1860s. Both became Idaho City merchants, Pinney in books and stationery and Sonna in hardware and general merchandise, but they stocked anything they could sell for a profit in addition to their specialties of books and hardware.
Sonna moved to Boise City and bought a lot at the corner of 9th and Main and in 1870 contracted with Charles May to build a two-story hardware store there. Eleven years later, in May 1881, he sold the prospering business to the Danskin Brothers and traveled to New York City, where he had been born in 1835. When the Danskins failed two years later, Sonna returned to Boise and took up the hardware business again. In 1888, he completed a large brick hardware building at the northwest corner of 9th and Main with an opera house on the second floor.
The Idaho Statesman reported on Nov. 18, 1888, Peter Sonna informs us that his hall is being completed, and seats of the latest pattern are ordered. The hall will seat from seven to eight hundred people. The stage arrangements will be of the best, and a study has been made as to the acoustic properties of the hall. It will no doubt be a credit to our growing young city. Now if this city council could see their way clear to reduce the license for theaters, we might expect some first class troupes to visit us during the winter. Think it over, gentlemen.
James A. Pinney, who had been in love with the stage since his youth in Ohio, and had briefly owned a theater in Idaho City, took over management of Sonnas Opera House, while still operating his bookstore. The new hall was easily the most elegant performing arts space in Idaho at the time.
Sonnas Opera House opened in January 1889, with a celebration honoring Sonna for this contribution to the entertainment life of the city. James A. Pinney was introduced as its manager. Electric lights were not installed in the hall until July, so we assume that kerosene lamps were used until then. That month Pinney was elected mayor for the third time The fact that he knew the theater business is evident from the quality of performers he brought to Boise in his first year as manager.
On Sept. 13, the Statesman reported, Bob and Eva McGinleys new specialty company is coming and will give our citizens a real treat, for all our exchanges speak in the highest terms of the late performances where they have appeared, and they are playing to full capacity of the opera houses everywhere, and they will appear in Sonnas Opera House next Thursday night, Sept. 19. Walter and Lillie Fern will positively appear with the McGinley company in their highly classical triple tonguing cornet solos and musical selections.
After that performance the paper opined that Bob McGinleys violin playing was by far the best that has been heard in Boise in many years.
In November, Pinney advertised with extravagant language the forthcoming appearance of Lew Johnsons Refined Colored Minstrels. Nothing Like Them. The Greatest Ever Here. 20 Renowned Artists, including the world famed Baby Black Boy Quartette. Introducing Negro Melodies and Genuine Plantation Specialties. Wait, Watch, dont fail to see the Grand Street Parade in Brilliant Uniform, headed by the Worlds Greatest Drum Major H. Smith. Popular Prices, Reserved seats now on sale at J.A. Pinney & Co.
Next week: Mayor Pinney builds his own theater.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.