The History of the Opera House

by Kathy King Johnson Executive Director Cheboygan Area Arts Council

Prelude: The History of the Cheboygan Opera House

When you enter the Cheboygan Opera House, it enters you. Once you have been here, some mystical force will call you back someday. You climb stairs, sharply ascending, odd angles and arches, black and white photos of shows gone by. At the show case, the chandeliers cast a glow on the red carpet at your feet. And you see the archways and the columns and the carved cornices and the curtains that block your view of the stage.

And when you walk into the auditorium, the magnificent 30 foot proscenium arches soar, adorned with golden orbs of light and you are swept up in  the dizzying expanse with the same feeling you get when you look where the sea meets the sky or you watch the sun go down or the moon come up.

You feel history. You breathe it in through your nose, smelling the garland of roses that once graced the arch in front of the stage. And as you let it out through your mouth you release the realities of the outside world. You let go of anything that takes you away from your willing suspension of disbelief.  The weight of history pulls you down into the soft cushions and the red velvet hugs your body. The hum of the excited audience is the sirens’ song, luring you away from your pinwheel thoughts and your crazy life.  You’ve borne too much reality. Escape.

 And as the light dims on reality, the curtains part, revealing a new world. For two hours you are transported, as if you’ve entered a time machine to the past, future or some unknown now, a figment of a writer’s imagination for you to explore.

And when the show is over, you leave, between worlds, not knowing if it is dark or light outside, You hold   to the world of stage, your emotions heightened, your thoughts still on the characters you met, strains of song drifting through your head.

For the second time in the last 40 years, the Opera House has gone dark. The lights are out, the curtains closed and the players have left the stage. 40 years ago, the Opera House was condemned, the bricks falling off the building, the chandeliers sold, the stage covered in dust and the wings in cobwebs. Before the demolition trucks drove in, the citizens of Cheboygan saved the Opera House, raising over $1.6 million to restore the building. They saved the Jewel of the North by coming together, working with the city, state and federal government, united in a clear and noble cause to keep art alive in Cheboygan.

Now the Opera House is closed by the global Coronavirus pandemic.  This is different. The stage is set for a beautiful reopening. The roof is fixed, the leaks are stopped. The air conditioning works and the ducts have been repaired. A new red carpet replaces the duct-taped and tattered carpet leading to the Green Room. A new high definition projector fills the screen with the best quality in movies and pictures, its public debut stopped in its tracks. A nascent recording studio waits for a new desk still in a box, ready to be opened. It will hold the new computer that coordinates video and audio recording.  We will have the capacity to make and show movies. Ancient projectors and spotlights have been carted away, making room for a new you-tube studio.

Behind the stage, the dance studio sits silent and dark, ready for the soft soled ballet slippers, the hard tips of the pointe shoes, and the clattering heels of tappers.

The House was poised for the best year ever in 2020. We were ready for the school play, our annual dance recital, a first ever Chamber Concert series, the best of the Eagles tributes, the return of Glenn Miller, Dave Bennet and the Emmy nominated Trout Fishing in America.  We were ready to announce the Secret Opera Society, to live stream from the Met, to start with a great movie for the children, and to bring Missoula Children’s theater back with a surprise for the community.

Fortunately we had a great year in 2019, with the full Coast Guard Band, the debut of Trout Fishing at the Opera House, Annie Get Your Gun and so many of our favorite performers. This gives us some breathing room. We will bring them back.

Now we spend our time refunding tickets and trying to get deposits backs from bands we’ve booked. We are moving everything we can online, including the upcoming 53 Annual Art Festival. We are prepared to furlough staff. We are prepared for the Opera House to sit empty as a performance venue if things get worse. We cannot open at full capacity until Phase 6, when there are no new Coronavirus cases or there is a vaccine.

We will not open publicly in even a limited capacity without doing everything we can do to keep our patrons, artists and staff safe.

This is not the end of the Opera House. It will stand here long after we are gone. It is a pause in the history of the Opera House. We are in between acts, in the intermezzo. During this time, I am going to write the history of the Opera House. Next week, we will begin at the beginning, 1876.

Thomas Tafoya, Lizzie Webber, and Eden Lavender star in “Annie Get Your Gun,” shut down mid-run on March 13, 2020 due to coronavirus.

History of the Opera House: Part 1 A House of Wood

Mark Twain dubbed the 1880s in America “The Gilded Age.” Things seemed golden on the outside: rapid growth, western expansion, and immense wealth as industrialization marched west. It was a time of great profit for the lumber business in Northern Michigan, to meet the needs of building homes and businesses. Because of access to the Straits of Mackinaw and the Inland Waterways, Cheboygan was perfectly positioned to move lumber nationwide. But under the shiny surface of the Victorian era, cultural and economic inequity festered. Immigrants supplying the labor lived in poverty and overcrowded conditions. Western Expansion meant the destruction of the Native American culture as Sitting Bull fled to Canada and Crazy Horse surrendered to the Cavalry.

George W. Bell, born in 1844 in Penobscot, Maine and his wife Lydia took advantage of the opportunity to move to Cheboygan. Cheboygan needed a lawyer. And George liked the lakes, the forests and the great energy generated by the growing village. Frank also brought with him an excellent academic education, experience as a schoolteacher and a law degree. He passed the bar in 1868.  George Bell, Watts Humphrey and D.R. Joslin were the first attorneys in Cheboygan, arriving in May of 1869 when George was only 25. The Bell family settled in town and had their first child, Annie May. Popular, handsome, and kindhearted, Bell served on many committees and service organizations. His heart was in politics. He became Judge of the Probate Court Cheboygan County and Circuit Court Commissioner. And he joined the Cheboygan village council.

Bell had dreams for the village of Cheboygan. In July of 1877, he brought forth a plan for a town hall. The hall combined council chambers, a fire engine room, a police station and an opera house. “According to the plan, it is to be 40 by 70 feet, two stories high, with 30 feet posts. The lower story is to be 11 feet high in the clear and is to be divided into rooms for various village uses. The upper story is to be 17 feet high in the clear and to have a gallery. The building is to be designed to be a frame building, built on a stone foundation and to be located on the village lot on Huron Street and is to contain the present lockup which will occupy a portion of the lower story.”

There was no quorum at that meeting to take a vote, but those present agreed the village was in great need of a hall and concluded, “We do not ever think there ever will be a time when a building can be completed as cheap as it can at the present.” The estimated cost was $2500, around $61,000 today.

On August 4th, village council members W.W. Strohn, President, George W. Bell, attorney, and trustees, McGinn, De Puy, McKervey, Farrell, Hall, and Perrin voted to approve the plan.  On August 18th, they voted to receive sealed bids for contractors. On September 1st, D.J. Burkley was awarded the contractor job over four other competitors. On September 8th, the Council voted to award him $300 for the job.

Only one week later, a load of lime arrived on the Dreadnaught from Detroit to make cement for the foundation. By September 29th, the walls were raised. Burkley pushed hard and by October 27, the building was enclosed and the first coat of plaster was finished.

As in any small town, there were controversies. A court suit was raging over an unfair race at the Cheboygan Horse Park. Two horses broke gait and crossed in front of another horse, who should have won. There were complaints about an ongoing fire in the sawdust pile. And with the new town hall rising before their eyes, citizens were critical. They wanted fancier doors and windows to make it look nicer. On November 3rd, the council rejected the request as the improvements were not in the budget.

The estimated completion date of December 20th was just around the corner.

Interior details were still being decided, and stoves to heat the hall were an issue. On November 24th the council voted to let President Strohn choose the stoves. He ordered five “Round Oak” parlor stoves from Dowagiac. The stoves arrived December 8th on the City of Concord.

With the hall nearing completion, George Bell asked for a vote to insure the building for the price of $25.  Five months after George Bell proposed a town hall, it was finished on December 22, 1877. The structure was complete with an elevator for the fire hose, council rooms, a jail, a stage and a gallery. The inside was nearly bare except for the stoves, without decorations, curtains or chairs.

Everyone had ideas on the first big event at the town hall. Who would it be? A formal opening? The Happy Seven Minstrel Group? The newly formed community theater?

Gilded finial from a Round Oak Parlor Stove
George W. Bell 1870s

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