History of the Opera: The Principal Lady by William Chlopan

In 1977, as the town of Cheboygan made the decision to demolish the Opera House or restore it, journalist Jim Cohoe wrote: “The decision is still awaited. Outside, it is filled with ugly wounds and weather-damaged scars. Inside there is a passion waiting to be fulfilled.

The movement to restore the Opera continued for five years. In 1982, fundraising for the Opera began in earnest. On December 16, 1982, Tribune reporter Linda Norlock wrote: “Earlier this year, some spit and polish and a little elbow grease enabled a group of Cheboygan residents – people with a dream – to share their vision with others. They would like to open the city’s vintage opera house and hope others will help them achieve this goal. This group wants others to be infected with their minds and help make Cheboygan Opera the leading lady in the north.

In April 1982, new city manager William E. Chlopan had only been in office for a few months when he chose the Opera House as Cheboygan’s leading lady. His role was to lift the city out of recession and decades of generational rural poverty. Chlopan said: “The reopening of the Cheboygan Opera House will mark the rebirth of this cultural movement in and around Cheboygan. Each citizen will be personally proud to welcome the “grande dame” of northern Michigan. It’s a big part of the difference between living and just existing.

Chlopan was born in 1929 near Detroit. He attended Wayne State University and the Lawrence Institute of Technology. After graduating, he worked in automobile production plants and attended evening classes. He earned a BS in Civil Engineering. In 1950, he became municipal superintendent and chief engineer of Garden City. In 1970, he earned a law degree from the University of Detroit. In 1972, he was secretary of the board of Ford Motor Co.

In December 1981, he became City Manager and City Engineer of Cheboygan Town and served there for 10 years. From 1996 to 2002 he served as Mayor of Cheboygan. Chlopan understood the importance of the arts in small town America, and especially in Cheboygan. He wrote: “There is a seed of greatness in all of us. It can either be grown to full bloom or wilt and dry out. The Cheboygan Area Arts Council is trying to nurture and grow this seed in adults after the school system started the process in our children. What does this have to do, you ask, with the problem of unemployment, our second and perhaps the predominant problem? Increased community pride and increased community cultural standards are very important in industry and tourism in Cheboygan.

William Chlopan and the Cheboygan Rivertown Restoration Plans.

In April 1983, work at the Opera was nearing completion and the leading lady was putting on her big girl pants. Journalist Linda Norlock wrote, “Watching the Cheboygan Opera as it’s ready to perform is like watching a royal lady getting ready for a big dance. She squirms in her foundation, making sure every petticoat is perfect for her plush dressings to rest on. A dab of powder here. A bit of lip polish, a gem or a piece of jewelry will add the finishing touch. Like the lady, Cheboygan’s Opera House always squirms in her petticoats. The floors have been repaired and sanded, prepared for varnish, plush carpeting and new seats. She is only beginning to prepare for her release in the form of a grand reopening, but the city is watching her every move.

In fact, people clamored to use the half-completed facility in 1982 and 1983. The Opera House Commission began making decisions about who could use the Opera House and many local events took place before the grand reopening. Portable chairs were brought. Chlopan was protective. He said: “We have every right to protect our property and we must be the sole judge of that. … The protection of the property of the city should be the primary concern in determining the conditions of use of the Opera.

He also warned against free use of the building, except for fundraising for the Opera House. He allowed the city to temporarily subsidize the costs of programming, but said “the city will not subsidize the costs forever”. Chlopan solicited proposals for running the Opera House, opening the doors for the Cheboygan Area Arts Council to begin running the business. On July 22, 1983, the City Council accepted CAAC’s proposal to run the Cheboygan Opera House and find an Executive Director.

Kathy King Johnson is Executive Director of the Cheboygan Region Arts Council and Opera House.  Originally from Cheboygan, she is a Hopwood Prize-winning writer from the University of Michigan.

In his first article written as city manager, Chlopan listed his goals. Many have been completed and some are still in progress. He wrote: “Over the next two years, we expect to see many of the following tourism-related improvements:

  1. Complete Phase III of the opera house, which will provide seating, stage props, curtains, mechanical and electrical equipment, and otherwise prepare the opera house for opening day.
  2. Remodel and rebuild buildings along the Cheboygan River, Main Street, and State Street to conform to “Rivertown” architectural themes.
  3. Build a county marina near the mouth of the Cheboygan River
  4. Rebuild an urban marina further upstream on the Cheboygan River.
  5. Constructing a fisherman’s footbridge over the Cheboygan River Breakwater in Lake Huron.
  6. Build additional park facilities along the waterfront.
  7. Upgrade the park east of the paper mill.
  8. Rebuild and expand nearby motels.
  9. Boat trips available on the inland waterway to Indian River and Conway.
  10. Perhaps the D and M Railroad runs twice-daily excursions between Mackinaw City and Cheboygan with a short stop at the state’s new Mill Creek Park along US-23.

Chlopan achieved many of his goals, the first being the completion of the Opera House, the jewel of the north, the pride of Cheboygan, its leading lady. He emphasized the importance of civic pride in Cheboygan and felt it deeply himself. His 2007 obituary read, “Chlopan has always been proud of the many accomplishments that were made during his tenure with the Town of Cheboygan.

— Kathy King Johnson is the former Executive Director of the Cheboygan Opera House.

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