History of the Opera: the stars line up for the renovation

After a decade of infighting and litigation, the stars finally lined up for the Opera. On March 30, 1982, the headline of the Cheboygan Tribune read: “Opera Building Activity Begins Again”. The final lawsuit between Tom Shaw and the town of Cheboygan resulted in “a settlement” by arbitration. Cheboygan Tribune editor Linda Norlock wrote, “City Manager William E. Chlopan said Shaw will complete Phase II of the Opera House construction for which he will receive $12,354 for contract completion. The stage will then be set for the start of Phase III – when the grant money is found. Stage III would complete the opera, including air conditioning, a sound system, lighting, seating, stage rigging, curtains and paint.

Finding the grant money fell to Chlopan. Chlopan’s three-part plan included applications to the Economic Development Administration, the Upper Great Lakes Block Grant, and a loan from the Farmers’ Home Administration. He also applied to the Kresge Foundation, but due to the volume of applications the group has received, he warned, “it’s kind of like a shot in the dark.”

Chlopan had a vision for the Opera. “Chlopan sees the theater as a star in a much grander production…to create jobs in Cheboygan through increased tourism. Chlopan envisions a summer theater troupe performing in Cheboygan and visitors from Mackinaw City and Mackinac Island traveling to see Cheboygan performances,” Norlock wrote. Embarking tourists for the shows would unleash them on downtown Cheboygan to eat and shop, an immediate money-saver.

The townspeople shared Chlopan’s enthusiasm for the completion of the Opera House project.

Sue Conboy was a member of the Northland Players and an advocate for opera restoration in the 1970s and 1980s. She saw the restoration process from a front row seat. “I had heard of the Opera but it was already closed when we moved to town. People have told me how important it has been to the community, a place for plays, dance and music recitals, graduations, concerts, travel diaries and other activities . At one point, Northland Players donated $1,000 for a feasibility study to determine if the grand old theater could be saved. Afterwards, many NP members and their families, including my young children, were allowed into the theater to clean, dust and sweep the stage. We have prepared tours to help people see the restoration possibilities of this gem and to commit to voting for a mile to come. The mileage passed, renovations began, and the Northland Players pledged an additional $5,000 for the restoration.

But when funds tightened due to the discovery of structural damage and the added cost it entailed, progress stalled. “Having enough money to complete the project was a concern because the city offices, police and fire station were also part of the building and were the first to be approached,” Conboy said.

Other nonprofits like the Northland Players have donated to the cause, donating the proceeds from the play

Conboy’s entire family was part of the restoration process and her husband, lawyer Jim Conboy, was a member of the City of Cheboygan Building Authority which oversaw the renovation of the Opera House. The building authority also included Phillip Leege, William Chlopan, Jeanette Bronson and Andrew Henderson.

Conboy recalls the enormous effort the citizens of Cheboygan made to complete the Opera House. “Fundraising has taken place. Seats were “sold” and plaques were installed with the name of the donor. We bought seats for our three children. We also chose an original brick wall in a backstage stairwell to honor our fathers, James C. Conboy, Sr. and Robert F. Hay.

It is estimated that $450,000 was needed to complete the Opera. The Cheboygan Opera House Fundraising Committee, led by President James Crusoe, has launched a fundraising campaign. The goal was to raise $200,000 to help match the grants provided by the city. The campaign began in July 1982 with an open day followed by another at Octorber. Individuals and businesses pledged tax-deductible donations. Donations were also made in memory of the deceased.

“We feel it is important for us to complete this impressive building; it can bring new culture and economic growth to Cheboygan as a venue for meetings, concerts, local theater performances, school functions, summer stocks and many other community activities,” Crusoe said. “The boost the Opera will give to the tourism industry, the improved public image and increased civic pride will be well worth our support.”

The fundraising campaign was immediately successful, with $65,000 pledged by donors before the campaign officially began. But the best was yet to come.

To be continued …

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

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