Boston's Opera House being restored to former glory

— A historic vaudeville and movie house in Boston's theater district is emerging from more than a decade in the dark to once again welcome audiences under its glittering marquee.

After years of neglect that left its lavish decorations in ruins and ceiling plaster raining down on the seats, the Opera House will reopen this summer with a touring production of Broadway's "The Lion King."

Counting down to opening night July 16, about 150 workers are restoring the entire theater -- from its gilded wall decorations and drinking fountains to its ceiling murals and lounges -- hoping to transport patrons back to the 1920s.

The theater was built in 1928 by architect Thomas Lamb in the ornate Beaux Arts style, with Baroque and Renaissance elements.

But as movies brought an end to live entertainment in the 1940s, the subtle brown and gold colors on the ceiling above orchestra-level seating were replaced by garish blue and green. The burgundy silk wall drapings were covered up, and the theater's curved marquee was removed to make way for flashing neon.

"That marquee could be a metaphor for the entire building, because that's what we are doing -- restoring all the original design, the original decor, while modernizing all the internal workings," said Stephen Marinelli, director of construction for the $34 million project.

"Basically, if today's technology existed in 1928, this is what it would have looked like," added Tony McLean, president of Broadway in Boston, a division of building owner Clear Channel Entertainment.

'For the common man'

The opulent theater was built in memory of B.F. Keith, creator of the largest American vaudeville circuit. The $5 million Keith Memorial had marble fireplaces from Italy and France, mirrored French doors and 12-foot hand-blown chandeliers. Floor-to-ceiling detailing in marble, bronze leaf, decorative plaster and gilding covered the walls of the auditorium, the two-story lobby and grand staircase.

But it was built for the common people, not the elite, said Albert Rex, executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance.

"It has significant pieces and re-creations of European art and history, but it was all for the common man," Rex said. "They didn't get to take the grand tour of Europe. This was an opportunity for them to see the sights of great art."

Joseph P. Kennedy, father of President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, was a part-owner and had a suite of offices above the auditorium.

After movies became the mainstay at the Keith Memorial, Sacks Theatres bought it in 1965 and renamed it the Savoy Theatre.

In 1978, famed conductor Sarah Caldwell and her Opera Company of Boston bought the building and it became the Opera House. For 12 seasons, such singers as Shirley Verrett, Magda Olivera and Beverly Sills performed there.

"It was a grand place," remembered Caldwell, 79, who lives in Freeport, Maine.

But the Opera Company couldn't afford to maintain it. The Opera House was caught up in an economic downturn during the late 1980s when arts funding was scarce and theater districts nationwide were languishing, said Ellen Lipsey, director of the Boston Landmarks Commission.

"Sarah Caldwell was a wonderful arts administrator, but her focus was on production, rather than the building," Lipsey said.

The Opera Company fell behind on tax and utility payments, and the city shut down the theater in 1991.

Dilapidated structure

For years it languished, with rats scurrying in the hallways. A clogged roof drain allowed water to seep into the walls, destroying plaster and decorations. Water main breaks flooded the basement to a depth of 4 feet.

In 1995, the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared a block on Washington Street with three historic theaters, including the Opera House, as one of the 11 most endangered historic sites in the country. It was later declared both a city and national landmark.

A year later, Caldwell optioned the building to the Theatre Management Group, later bought by Clear Channel. Caldwell retained the right to stage 12 weeks of opera performances each year but doesn't have any plans for a performance this year.

A legal battle with neighbors over proposed expansion of the theater's stage delayed restoration, even as plaster continued to fall and frescos deteriorated. But in November 2002, a judge ruled in favor of the theater, the two sides settled outside of court, and the work began.

When Marinelli first entered the decrepit building, it was dark and dank.

"There were no lights, and we had to walk around with big flashlights to try and estimate all the damage," he said. "There were holes so big on the ceiling, you could drive a truck through them."

The wall drapings, curtains and carpets were filled with mildew. The proscenium mural, high above the stage, was in such bad shape that the National Park Service told Marinelli that he wasn't expected to restore it, he said. Since the building is a national landmark, any restoration and renovation has to be approved by the park service.

But Clear Channel officials were undeterred.

"You could certainly see, even though it had deteriorated so much, that it had amazing potential," said David Anderson, president of Theatre Management. "This was a masterpiece."

Much-needed facelift

Now, craftsmen are working seven days a week to painstakingly re-create entire chunks of ruined plaster panels, cherubs and flowers. Every wall and ceiling of the half-acre building is being cleaned and repainted. Oak panels once bloated with water are being reconstructed. The walls are being rehung with custom-milled fabric to match the original decor. The proscenium mural has been re-created almost entirely from old photographs by an expert familiar with the original artist's work.

This "palace for the people" will finally be returned to patrons of theater and art, McLean said.

Along with Broadway blockbusters like "Lion King," which will run through October, McLean said he wants to stage dance -- including ballet -- and classical music performances at the 2,500-seat theater.

The Opera House name could change. Clear Channel officials are talking with Boston-area businesses about name and title sponsorship, said spokeswoman Ann Sheehan, adding that a price tag hadn't been decided.

Local preservation groups and historians hope the restoration of the Opera House will lead to an overall revitalization of Boston's Theater District.

"You will see some overall spinoff, with theaters right around the area," said Rex of the Boston Preservation Alliance. "Boston has always been a huge arts center, and the Keith/Opera House has always been a hub of theater throughout New England."

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