The finishing touches were put on the Opera House to prepare for the Grand Reopening in June 1984. Cynthia DeBolt, elementary art school teacher, designed and painted the ceiling of the Opera House in a floral pattern that honored the pink and red wreathes of roses that originally graced the proscenium arches. Each building that architect Frederick Hollister designed in the 1800s had a central theme, often based around Greek mythology popular at the time. The theme of Hollister’s Opera House was the rosette or “rodakas,” representing “the magical center of everything.” The rosette can still be seen in Debolt’s painted arches of the theater, in the curtain holders, and in the arms of the chairs.
The original plan was to save money by restoring the chairs from the 1903 building that had been removed. But by 1984, people were larger and the chairs deemed too small and too close together for comfortable seating. Using the design of the original chairs, new chairs were purchased and installed.
The plush burgundy curtains with their gold cord and tassels arrived from France. “Building Authority Philip Leege credited Opera House Commission member Wendy Caulkins with selecting carpeting and draperies and coordinating the burgundy and gold colors for the Opera House renovation,” Tribune editor Linda Norlock said.
While the finishing touches were completed, larger and larger events were held at the Opera House before the Grand Opening in June. In early April, the University of Michigan’s Men’s Glee Club set the stage. Organized in 1859, The U of M Glee club is the second oldest in the US. The group appears internationally and is still acclaimed as one of the finest sale choruses in the world. “It was the group’s performance of Milhoud’s ‘Psaume 121’ that exemplified both the depth of their abilities and the acclaimed acoustical quality of the Opera House,” Norlock said. The Friars provided comedy relief, clowning their way through the parody version of Neil Sedaka’s tune “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” renamed “Breaking Up is Hard on You.”
Fred Vipond’s version of Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time” revealed a “talented young man whose voice had a bell-like quality — clear and pure. ... Vipond was the audience favorite. Residents who had waited through the planning and setbacks weren’t disappointed by either the appearance of the local theater or the performance of the U of M choral group,” Norlock said.
On April 3, the Public Broadcasting Station came to Cheboygan to videotape a TV PBS special for national broadcasting. The concert featured Susanne McCormick, concert pianist, the Northwood Orchestra and nationally renowned guest conductor Kitch Henderson. The artists had encouraging things to say about the Opera House. Both Henderson and McCormick applauded the thrust of the stage that allowed performers to be closer to the audience. They appreciated the Cheboygan audience. Unlike big city audiences who might see professional productions frequently, “in a small town people come to enjoy the concert and they’re warmer,” Henderson said.
Henderson, who got his nickname “Skitch” from his ability to “resketch” a song in a different key, founded the New York Pops Orchestra in 1983 and remained as director and conductor until his death in 2005. His career as a pianist and conductor began the 1930s when he played piano for Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. He did stints as musical director for both the “Today Show” and the “Tonight Show” in the 1960s. His decades in the entertainment business gave him a unique prospective on the Opera House.
“It looks to me like a golden opportunity,” Henderson said. “It’s a business. The key to its success is the manner in which it is managed. You can’t play games and say, ‘I don’t want Shakespeare. I want Neil Simon.’ You can’t live on Shakespeare or Neil Simon.”
Henderson recommended bringing young talent to the Opera House. “If I were manager of that house, I’d bring in young artists, who have no place to go, to perform to prove themselves on the Opera House stage. … Everything is 2000 seats. … When only 200 people are in attendance at a recital in those facilities, it’s oblivion.”
In May, Cheboygan’s raucous Follies took center stage. “From Jerry Piper who gets a lift from the bar flies in a Las Vegas number, to Susie Blum, Marcia Kaufmann and Char Swiderik in a Roaring Twenties number to Henery Podgorski’s rendition of ‘Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown,’ the Rivertown Follies opening night made quite a splash,” the Tribune said. The vaudeville review played two nights at the Opera House on May 17 and 18. The Rivertown Follies are a community theater group whose annual variety shows continue to raise money for worthy local causes.
Cheboygan was ready for the Grand Reopening of the Opera House on June 16 and 17, 1984. The Cheboygan City Council voted to bring out the downtown Fourth of July flags two weeks early for the event. Local journalist Gordon Turner responded, “Our historic and beautiful Opera House, one of the few opera houses remaining in a city of this size, was closed for 17 years, and now is open again, finer than ever. Let’s all put out flags to show our pride.”
To be continued ...
— Kathy King Johnson is former executive director of the Cheboygan Opera House.
This article originally appeared on Cheboygan Daily Tribune: History of the Opera House: Cheboygan prepares for the grand opening