Macon Telegraph Staff Writer
The Grand Opera House in downtown Macon will get close to $1 million in renovations this summer as the stage is replaced, the mid-level balcony gets an air-conditioning upgrade and other work is done.
Asbestos removal began Thursday in the basement. Once that is complete, construction crews will rip up the stage floor, which might have been installed when the building was constructed in 1884, said architect Charles Brittain, who is working on the current renovations.
A series of renovations have been done to the opera house through the years. Electricity was added in the early 1900s and it was made into a movie theater at one point.
But "everything you see is pretty much original" in the Mulberry Street building, Brittain said.
Over the years the stage has hosted the likes of Harry Houdini, Charlie Chaplin and a production of Ben-Hur, complete with live horses. It's one of a very few opera houses of its size left in the southeast, Brittain said.
The Grand Opera House Board of Governors and Mercer University are raising the money to redo the stage and put in other improvements this summer, board chairman John Shoemaker said.
The bill is expected to reach about $750,000, and about $250,000 of that will come from a federal grant, according to the university.
The Bibb County Commission recently agreed to spend about $167,000 to replace the building's fire escape. The county owns the building but Mercer has a long-term lease to operate it. The two entities have an agreement that generally calls for the county to handle maintenance on the building's exterior and the university to take care of things inside.
Work should be completed by September, when the opera house's new season begins, Brittain said.
The new floor will be similar to the current one, made of pine and painted black, but will be level. The current one is uneven, which is a problem during setup for some shows, Brittain said.
The stage trap door, used by Houdini when he performed at the Grand, will remain, Brittain said.
One of the most noticeable changes will be the air-conditioning upgrade in the middle balcony, Brittain said. With the current system, it's difficult to keep both the balcony and the floor seats at a comfortable temperature, he said.
Also, a new row of seats will be added to the balcony.
The upper balcony, which used to be a segregated seating section, will remain closed after this renovation because the seats and the steps are set at too steep an angle, Brittain said.
Other renovations are hoped for in the future, said Brittain, who said he also worked on the Opera House in 1969, when it was converted back from a movie theater to a playhouse. Officials would like to expand the orchestra pit and add other amenities but would have to raise the money, Brittain said.
They'd also like to improve the restroom facilities, Shoemaker said.
"We've got a whole lot of projects we want to do for that facility. ... It's the property of the citizens of this community," Shoemaker said.
(This material is based upon work assisted by a grant from the Department of the Interior, National Park Service. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Interior.)