The Memorial Opera House. A Five Year Transformation Story

The Memorial Opera House. A Five Year Transformation Story
By: Jessica Campbell Last Updated: January 24, 2017

Five years ago a group of people in the community came together and looked at the Memorial Opera House with a candid perspective on its past and potential future. This jewel, this theatrical, beautiful, building? “What can we do?” they asked.

Five years ago, the Memorial Opera House was losing its magic, along with its actors, staff and relationship with the community.

“It was in a horrible position financially,” Porter County Commissioner Laura Blaney explained. “It was looking pretty bleak. It was do or die time.”

Years of water and ice damage had disintegrated the building structure, seeping into the attic and through the west wall. The brick came crumbling off in your hands.

“It was a money pit,” Blaney admitted.

“But there were people, like these guys…” she said, gesturing to Scot MacDonald, a long-time volunteer and now Business Director for the house and Scott “Stretch” Miller, the technical director. “… who believed in it.”

It took five years to turn it around. Exterior projects, such as rebuilding parts of the foundation, roof and shingle work, were the first tasks on the to-do list. Since 2012, the opera house has received grant money to complete these projects and upgrade equipment. Next came the electrical and technical upgrades.

The first year, the money was split between installing LED lights throughout the space, and wireless audio microphones for the actors. Speakers, amplifiers, and more lighting projects were installed over the years as well.

Starting in 2015, the opera house installed three projectors which run off an iMac. There are three 10 feet wide by 15 feet tall screens which can be seamed together for one big sheet or used in three independent ways, Miller explained. Last year came another solid 30 feet wide by 18 feet tall front screen.

“I was in New Jersey at the Paper Mill Playhouse and thought, ‘These sets are incredible!’ I talked to the technician who said it was a projection wall and I said, “We need a projection wall!” MacDonald exclaimed.

The projector helps cut down the expense and hassle of building and managing large sets, especially for the Memorial House, where space for a backstage is nearly non-existent, MacDonald explained.

For the projections, designers and illustrators can design what the backdrop will be and it moves and changes throughout the play, he added.

“For “Into the Woods,” we had someone sketch story book scenes,” MacDonald said.

The software and projections were expensive and keeping up with that form of technology is expensive, but the enhanced settings and quality of the show is worth it, the three agreed.

“We can take more risks and having Stretch (Miller) here with the lighting and technology stuff, that is amazing,” Blaney said. “It is so cool. The “Wizard of Oz” with the projectors, they were just awesome. The tornado? How would we do a tornado without the projection?”

Blaney began her role with the Memorial Opera House back in 2012, when the house was being turned over to new people and goals. She currently sits on the Board of Directors. Miller was hired then as well, setting his sights on upgrades, while MacDonald stepped into a hired role from volunteer to helping manage the business side.

To make this dream a reality once again, they had to work with the Porter County Commissioners, Porter County Council, the Memorial Opera House Board of Directors and the re-emerging Memorial Opera House Foundation.

The foundation was always there, MacDonald said, just not fully present, until the make-over began. Now, it covers all fundraising, decides the future shows with active public and member participation, and is leading the staff toward the right direction.

“It just started flying,” MacDonald said. “I mean last year, it just took off. It was crawling, crawling, crawling and now its “Oh my goodness, we are busy!”

“It was about that time we got more organized with the management of the place, more protocols and systems, ways of doing things,” Blaney added. “We have a book keeper now, which really helped keep expenses down.”

2016 was the busiest year in many, Miller declared, with about 100 events taking place at the house. People are no longer walking past the Memorial Opera House wondering why they have never heard of this place before, and are instead trying to buy tickets to sold out shows, he said.

Within the last two years, the lounge upstairs was transformed into the hip, cool Klemz Lounge now stocked with the donated, eclectic furniture of Homenclature and downstairs, work was done to make the smaller lounge and box office area more customer-friendly. Recently, the entire interior of the building was painted by Jeff Leverich of Leverich Painting and Decorating.

“Painting is … Oh my God, I stood in there and cried because I was so happy,” MacDonald said.

Now, as the 2017 kicks off with the already buzzing show, “The Producers,” they spent some time with us to reflect on the road to here and look forward to the next five years.

“It took so many people, a lot of people believing and making sacrifices,” Blaney said. That group included Trinadad Snyder the former business director who still has an influencing hand in the opera’s progress and members like Jacki Stutzman and Kaye Frataccia who serve on the Foundation Board and who have put great energy into providing the resources needed to grow.

Miller has already begun reconstructing the orchestra pit, expanding it for the ever-growing orchestra.

The conductor will have a new stand, which will house all the power outlets and cables, the wall behind will be pushed back to allow another five feet, and there will be 15 seven-inch monitors on new music stands for the players, so that they can see the conductor without looking his way.

The present and the future of The Memorial Opera House rested in the hands of a group of believers, who only had hope five years ago.

“I really always thought it would be,” Blaney said, when asked if she thought the opera house would make it through the rough patch. “I mean look at that place. The place is a jewel. You go in there and you fall in love. We just needed to get people in there.”

Check out the 2017 season and stay updated through The Memorial Opera House website.