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The Phantom is the Opera: The Amphitheater of Skyline Drive

Minnilusa Historical Association
The Skyline Auditorium, circa 1930s.

Hikers on the Skyline Wilderness Trail in Rapid City frequently walk past the remnants of the amphitheater, a strange relic of civilization slowly dissolving into wilderness. Once there were high hopes for the amphitheater as a stage for epic pageantry. Today, the opera itself has become the phantom.

In the 1930's, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) launched several projects in the area of Hangman's Hill -- where three alleged horse thieves were killed by a mob in 1877. The projects included Skyline Drive itself, Dinosaur Park, and the lesser known amphitheater. All were intended to capitalize on tourism brought to the area by Mount Rushmore, then under construction.

Local sculptor Emmet Sullivan made a lasting impact on area iconography through his dinosaur sculptures at Dinosaur Park, at Wall Drug and at a now-abandoned attraction in Arkansas, as well as his massive Christ of the Ozarks in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

The amphitheater project seems to have been borne out of the "Pageant of America" concept. The Pageant was the brainchild of Kenneth M. Ellis, a New York writer who worked for the National Mount Rushmore Committee. Ellis apparently envisioned the construction of Mount Rushmore as a catalyst that would drive masses into theatrical paroxysms of patriotic fervor lasting months on end.

"Pages of American history will come to life next summer in flesh and blood as the stirring scenes of 400 years of national life flash into re-enacted creation in the daring conception of the Pageant of America, to be held in the Black Hills outside of Rapid City," the Argus Leader predicted.

"Across the stage of a huge outdoor amphitheatre, at the edge of South Dakota's plains and at the threshold of her mountains, casts of 5000 people will move in the sweep and color of De Soto's Spanish troops, the sombre quiet of the Jesuit pioneers, the ragged splendor of Washington's troops and the black tragedy of sister states in civil strife."

Michael Zimny
Exposed native stone terraces are occasionally visible beneath the upholstery of yucca and grass.

Damon Matter, a local and civil engineering student at South Dakota School of Mines, designed the outdoor amphitheater as his senior project. There is not much information about the construction process, but erosion has exposed terraces of stacked native stone beneath the stepped "benches." Most likely, some of the terraces have long since collapsed. Standing at stage level, one can trace the bench lines across several perpendicular dividers or "stairways" between the seats.

The Pageant of America's lofty ambitions seem to have been dashed on the treacherous Dakota hogback of financial insolvency. Pageant backers abandoned the outdoor amphitheater for lack of harder surface seating and available parking. The Queen City Mail announced that the pageant would be held in Spearfish, though it seems that never panned out either.

Perhaps Damon Matter's senior project never served its intended purpose, but he may have left behind Hangman Hill's most sublime work of art -- an edifice built for humans in close contact celebrating a unitary patriotic ideal -- gradually sinking in a miasma of nature and time.

Out on the trail, lone hikers pass the bleachers unobserved. The curiosity is off-stage, in the permanent absence of a stageward gaze.