Amherst hopeful for opera house's future
This article was published in the March 17, 2017, edition of The Stevens Point Gazette. Reprinted with permission.
The Amherst Opera House in Amherst, Wisconsin, in March 2017. (Photo by Ashley Phelan)
It’s been awhile since the Amherst Opera House has bustled with activity.
It has been closed to the public for so long, a 2009 Wisconsin Historical Society Press book about Wisconsin opera houses misstated that the building had already been bulldozed.
The opera house, located at 207 North Main Street in Amherst, has not yet met a wrecking ball. In fact, 2017 is a milestone year for the building: Not only does it mark the 115th anniversary of the opera house’s opening, it also denotes its sale.
The building, closed to the public since the 1970s, is for sale “as is.” It will go to the highest bidder with a reasonable plan for its utilization.
“It’s a neat old building,” said Amherst resident Tom Iverson, who lives next door to the opera house and is a great-grandson of original stockholder Charles J. Iverson. “Everybody in town would love something to be done with it.”
The opera house opened in 1902 with 10 stockholders. Calling a theater an opera house was common in the U.S. at that time. It suggested an air of sophistication; that the town could support a burgeoning arts scene.
Sally Prideaux, the Tomorrow River Valley Historical Society secretary/treasurer and great-granddaughter of original opera house and International Bank of Amherst stockholder Louis A. Pomeroy, said Pomeroy, among others, would have recognized the town’s need for local entertainment.
“They had a lot of phenomenal musicians,” Prideaux said. “Back then, that’s what people did – it was music. They didn’t have the transportation and the ability to get around like we do now.”
The opera house was built during one of the nation’s richest, most theatrically diverse periods, with jubilee groups and minstrel shows crisscrossing the country via railroad.
During that time, Amherst boasted a train station that ran two northbound and southbound trains each, six days a week. This allowed for the opera house to regularly host renown performers and troupes.
One of the top Black minstrel shows at the turn of the century, Frank Mahara’s Big Minstrel Carnival, performed at the opera house in March 1905. That same year, The Flora DeVoss Company performed “Princess Lou,” a Southern comedy drama starring Ruby Rotnour, “America’s foremost juvenile star,” and an actor who has gone down in history, Edwin Brink.
Though he was a veteran actor by the time he performed in Amherst, decades earlier he was in a production of “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C., on the eve of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
He was performing Scene I when he was distracted by well-known stage actor John Wilkes Booth standing in the back of the house, picking his teeth with a penknife while eyeing Lincoln. According to a January 1905 edition of the Amherst Advocate, Brink “was held three months as a witness” after Booth assassinated Lincoln.
The prominence of American touring companies declined in the 1920s, leading many communities to convert their opera houses into silent movie theaters or general use facilities. Amherst resident Wayland Peterson was born in 1925 and grew up on John Street, near the opera house. He recalls a wide range of events being held in the building during the 1930s, like fish fries, talent and comedy shows, dances, wedding receptions, and a roulette wheel-type game played at Legion events where attendees could buy tickets and, if the wheel stopped on their number, they would win a chicken, duck, goose or turkey.
Most of the time, this meat was already prepared by one of the butchers in town. But every once in awhile, event organizers would liven things up by giving a winner a live animal instead, Peterson said.
Peterson’s uncle was once unlucky enough to win a live turkey. He put the turkey in a shed before planning to take it to a butcher. Peterson and a friend, however, wanted to sneak a peak at the turkey before it met its fate.
At first, when Peterson and his friend opened the shed door, nothing happened. The shed was still and dark, Peterson said.
“Then all the sudden, out he went,” Peterson said with a laugh. “He went down John Street and Main Street. My uncle, my buddy and me chased that turkey down past the viaduct, by the old Soo Line. It got up into a little tree and my uncle eventually caught it.”
That era was a difficult time for the opera house and for Amherst. As the Depression hit the country, several people in the community struggled to find employment and the opera house fell into disrepair, Peterson said.
The Village of Amherst voted in April 1937 on whether it should buy the opera house, which, according to a March 1937 Amherst Advocate article, could “be acquired by paying up the back taxes, which now amount to approximately $850, and using the property as a community hall.” The referendum passed, 146 to 83.
Upgrades soon followed, completed by the Works Progress Administration. The WPA was a U.S. federal government program created as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. It employed mostly unskilled men to complete public works projects around the country – or in the case of Amherst, projects like opera house renovations.
“The WPA rebuilt the basement, put in a furnace, kitchen, toilets, and anything else that needed repairs,” said Peterson, who recalled the opera house basement having a dirt floor before WPA renovations.
As the publicly owned Community Hall, the building continued to have diverse uses. In 1946, the Worth Company of Stevens Point rented the building and opened a fish fly factory with “about 29 women employed,” according to a June 1970 Stevens Point Daily Journal article. Two years later, the Tomorrow River School District rented the building for “hot lunches, home economics classes, and band and vocal music classes” until the school’s new addition was built in 1953.
Iverson said he recalls roller skating events and Halloween and Lion’s Club Christmas parties being held at Community Hall throughout the 1960s.
“It always seemed big as a little kid,” Iverson said. “The ceilings are 18, 20 feet. It’s a tall room. There’s a 7-foot ceiling in the balcony. The balcony had a sloped floor, so people in back wouldn’t be looking over somebody’s head. When you walk in the front door, there is a room to the right and a room to the left. One is a coat room and has a stairwell into the basement. The other is the ticket booth and has stairs going to the balcony.”
In 1970, Harrison Baker, a Chicago resident who also had a house in the Town of New Hope, bought the building in order to house a Barton pipe organ he purchased six months earlier. According to a July 1970 Stevens Point Daily Journal article, the organ came from an “archaic” south side Chicago theater and was invented by Dan Barton, an Amherst native and founder of the Bartola Musical Instrument Company in Oshkosh in 1918. The article described the organ as having pipes ranging “from 16 feet to pencil size. Like most organs used in the days of silent movies, it has many extra sound effects. There is a percussion section, drum, marimba, triangle, a steam boat whistle and horns … The console, done in gold plaster casting, is heavily embellished with rococo type ornamentations typical of the era and its theaters with their heavy draperies, carpets, tinsel and plaster casting.”
Two years later, however, another Stevens Point Daily Journal article referred to the opera house as being “engulfed in an air of quietude.” The organ was still being assembled. “Unfortunately, [Baker] has had to spend much of his time making necessary repairs on the building, instead of working with the organ,” the February 1972 article said.
That “air of quietude” remained for the next four decades. The building never reopened to the public.
Baker and his wife, Cathryn “Cassie” Baker, died in 2005 and 2011, respectively. The opera house building and grounds have since-then been managed – and are now for sale – through the Cathryn W. Baker Revocable Trust.
The Dairyland Theater Organ Society, a non-profit organization out of Lake Geneva that preserves and promotes theatre pipe organs, removed the organ pieces from the opera house in October 2016, according to the DTOS website.
The majority of Amherst residents have never seen the inside of the building, let alone attended events there. The Lettie W. Jensen Community Center, 487 North Main Street, was completed in 1988 and has since-then been the community’s hub for concerts, theater, fine arts activities, and youth and civic group meetings.
Since these types of events were previously held in the opera house, just restoring the building to what it once was may not be the most economically feasible option for the community, said Butch Pomeroy, president of the International Bank of Amherst and also a great-grandson of Louis A. Pomeroy.
“It’s going to be hard for it to be a for-profit setup,” Pomeroy said. “It would be duplicating the Jensen Center, competing against it.”
Other issues Pomeroy said a potential buyer would need to consider is what kind of licensing or permits they would need in order to bring their vision for the building to fruition, whether those licenses are available, and if the local economy can support the envisioned enterprise.
For example, would a potential owner want to serve alcohol on the premises? “Class B” liquor licenses (e.g., taverns and restaurants with full alcohol service) are issued by the Village and are restricted by quotas. Amherst should have one liquor license for every 500 people. With a population of 1,058, there should only be two liquor licenses, with one reserve license, said Village of Amherst Clerk/Treasurer Marcy Peterson.
But the Village already surpasses this quota. It has five licenses – one of them coming with the Tomorrow River Supper Club, which the business was allowed to keep when it was annexed into the Village. Other establishments already had licenses when the state created the quotas, so those licenses were grandfathered in, Peterson said.
“A beer license and a wine license would be a possibility depending on what went in there, but there are no liquor licenses available in the Village of Amherst,” Peterson said in an email.
In terms of renovations, the type of codes required for the building depend on the codes that were in place when the opera house was constructed and how a potential buyer plans to use the building, Amherst Fire Chief Victor Voss said. The building is currently for public assembly. Using it for continued public assembly use has different requirements than remodeling it for something with a different occupancy, like a hotel.
“The state wouldn’t come into a building and, after 50 years, say, ‘By the way, we’re going to force you to put an elevator in,’” said Voss, noting that there are businesses operating out of older buildings in downtown Amherst that utilize their basements, but were not required to install elevators, for example. “As long as the occupancy type doesn’t change – in this case, this is a building of public assembly – all we have to do is make sure the building is safe.”
A buyer would need a thorough inspection by a building inspector and then a contractor in order to understand what renovations their specific vision for the building would require and the kind of costs they could incur.
What the next step is now for the opera house is largely up to the public.
Anyone interested in submitting a bid to purchase the building is to email [address now redacted since sale] so a tour to inspect the property can be arranged. In the email, interested parties are to include a brief description of their plan for the building’s use.
“I think it’s a really cool story,” Voss said of the opera house’s history. “A great end of the story would be to put the building back in use. Something meaningful.”
Update: The AOH Co. Guild 501(c)3 purchased the building in August 2017. For more information, go to the Amherst Opera House Company website.