A step back in time: Historic opera house turns 125

Originally posted on Apr 28, 2011 in the Ashland Times-Gazette.
Original link to article.

Posted Apr 28, 2011 at 5:01 AM


T-G Staff Writer

Scrawled on the dressing room walls and walkways behind the Hayesville Opera House stage are hundreds of signatures, marks left by past performers — medicine men, minstrel shows, symphonies and, perhaps the most famous, Buffalo Bill Cody.

“Buffalo Bill. One Night. Oct. 28, 1888,” it says in gray letters.

Friday marks the 125th anniversary of the opera house’s first opening night and while it has undergone renovations and upgrades, generations of like-minded preservationists have worked to maintain its historical integrity — from the signatures backstage to the original backdrops to the fixtures that hold the house’s 200 seats.

“There are very few theaters like this still in existence. There’s just something about coming to a theater like this today. It takes you back,” said Dave Roepke, president of the Hayesville Opera House Restoration Board.

The opera house, which sits atop Hayesville’s Town Hall building on the southeast corner of the square, was built in 1886 for $4,852.20. Voters approved the tax for the building 100 to 13.

Today, the opera house screens weekend movies and occasional musical and theater performances. But in its early years, it served as a source of entertainment for locals, featuring mostly medicine men, local theater and minstrel shows. It also was a sort of community gathering place. Hayesville High School held its graduation at the building until 1929. The local Farmers Institute also was held at the opera house.

In her book, “Historic Hayesville: Hayesville Opera House,” the late Hayesville historian Virginia Patterson writes, “People didn’t have to leave town to find something to do on a Saturday night.”

By the late 1930s, attendance and use of the opera house had dwindled and it sat idle for more than 30 years. In 1968, a group of 600 people from Ashland and surrounding counties formed a restoration committee for the purpose of reviving the opera house in time for the country’s 1976 bicentennial celebration.

The committee raised more than $2,000 to rewire the opera house for electricity, hang red and gold wallpaper and paint the wainscoting. And on Aug. 21, 1976, the Hayesville Opera House Players presented “A Gay 90th Anniversary Night,” to a full house. That same year, the opera house became the first Ashland County building to be named to the National Register of Historic Places.

Restoration efforts slowed until 1994 when the restoration board reconvened and launched a series of fundraising efforts. They replaced air conditioning, installed restrooms and, most recently in 2009, spent about eight months repainting, stenciling and refurbishing the wooden seats.

While attendance is not what it once was, Roepke said the opera house has a consistent audience for its weekend movies and a pretty good turnout for community theater productions. On Saturday, April 30, the stage will play host to a live bluegrass show featuring Copus Hill and The Blanton Family.

It’s fun, Roepke said, to see people come up the steps to the theater for the first time.

“People who live here will come for the first time and say, ‘Oh my gosh, look at this, I didn’t know this was up here all these years,’ ” Roepke said. “And they’re joining the rest of the people who have walked up those steps. The same steps all these years.”

Courtney Albon can be reached at 419-281-0581, ext. 243, or calbon@times-gazette.com.