In its heyday, the Funke Opera House was a popular Lincoln destination. It even had the distinction of being the venue for the city’s very first screened movies.
“The last vestiges of one of Lincoln’s earliest theaters will soon disappear at the hands of a wrecking crew,” reported the Lincoln Star on January 14, 1940. “The Kresge building at the corner of 12th and O streets, to be razed preparatory to the erection of a new structure on the site, was known as the Funke Opera House prior to 1902 when it was remodeled into an office building. During its Thespian days many noted theatrical stars trod the boards of the Funke while many persons prominent in city and national affairs applauded their efforts from the auditorium.”
The Lincoln antecedents of the Funke Opera House included the Hallo Opera House, built by H. Hallo, a clothing merchant, and completed in 1873. In 1875 the theater burned, but was rebuilt and named the Centennial in honor of its opening in 1876.
In 1882 Frederick Funke bought the building and added another story and an addition to the rear. The theater occupied the second floor and had a balcony. In addition to an inside stairway leading up to the auditorium, there was a large outside iron ramp running up to the second floor and also to the gallery.
The best-known manager of the Funke was Frank C. Zehrung, who refurbished the theater and attracted national talent. “Some of the greatest stars that the stage has produced appeared at the Funke. . . . One of Lincoln’s most noted authoresses, Willa Cather, wrote her first review as a fledgling dramatic critic about a production at the Funke entitled ‘The Spooners.’
“The first moving pictures ever to be shown in the city were screened at the Funke by the W. W. Bittner Comedy Co. Running only a few minutes with brief shots of the Empire Limited going down the tracks, the New York fire department leading a horse from a burning barn, and similar everyday activities, these first movies were a local sensation. William Jennings Bryan, as a young Lincoln lawyer, saw his first movies at the Funke and they showed him making a speech from the back of a train.”
The Funke was finally closed in 1902. It was by then outmoded and unprofitable.