Hamlet Opera House: ‘We need the community’s support’

Effort to restore 102-year-old building now underway

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com A view of the Hamlet Opera Stage as it is today.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
A view of the Hamlet Opera Stage as it is today.

Photo tour

By Kevin Spradlin
PeeDeePost.com

HAMLET — Earlier this month, Miranda Chavis asked Hamlet Mayor Bill Bayless and City Council members to pledge $100,000 to the restoration efforts of the 102-year-old Hamlet Opera House.

She walked away with a promise of $50,000. Now the real work begins.

Photo courtesy Hamlet Depot & Museums A look at the Hamlet Opera House with his Neo-Classical facade, as originally constructed in 1912.

Photo courtesy Hamlet Depot & Museums
A look at the Hamlet Opera House with his Neo-Classical facade, as originally constructed in 1912.

With the support of city leaders, Chavis, the city’s downtown coordinator and director of the Hamlet Depot & Museums, is looking to add another feather to the city’s cap of cultural assets by bringing back the former opera house and movie theater. Chavis said she and others envision the building becoming a multipurpose building for the arts, showing select movies — between those still in theaters and those available on DVD — and for performing arts such as music dancing, painting and more.

Councilman Tony Clewis said the promise gives Chavis “a tool” with which to approach other funding sources, including the public as well as private foundations, for continued support.

Councilman Jesse McQueen suggested there could be problems as city representatives continued to ask residents of Hamlet, Richmond County — and anyone else who will allow their ear to be bent for a moment — for more money. McQueen called the opera house “a vital asset” but was cautious about an outright commitment of funds from a specific source. Instead, he suggested the city find a way to financially benefit from the land donated from 64.99 acres of land donated to the city by Mark’s Creek Industrial Park Inc.

“I’m willing to commit to work on that project,” McQueen said, “but the taxpayers have put a lot of money towards quality-of-life projects. I think, at some point, we need to try to find alternate funding for some of these things that’s not bringing in a lot of money. That land could be huge … a windfall … the possibilities are endless, and earmark every dime of it to the opera house.”

Councilman Eddie Martin said he’s “100 percent in favor of moving towards doing something to the opera house.”

Photo courtesy Hamlet Depot & Museums A 1914 production in the Hamlet Opera House.

Photo courtesy Hamlet Depot & Museums
A 1914 production in the Hamlet Opera House.

“What that might be, I don’t know,” Martin said.

Like McQueen, Councilman Johnathan Buie said committing to the project was “going out on a limb” and suggested the city instead conduct a community-wide event that would kickoff a fundraising campaign and generate and gauge community interest. Councilman Pat Preslar agreed with Buie — something that hasn’t frequently occurred since the municipal election last fall.

“There’s a lot of ‘if’s’ in place,” Preslar said. “I think that route would work better.

The council voted 5-0 to support the $50,000 pledge that will not come out of the budget currently being worked for Fiscal year 2015, which begins July 1.

“I’d like to see a movie in there by next year,” Buie said.

Don’t reserve your tickets just yet. The discussion, which took place May 1 during a public work session, illustrates just how much work Chavis has to do within the city of Hamlet itself, much less outside city limits to generate the kind of support needed to make the project move forward.

“It’s going to be a seven-figure project,” Chavis said. “We can host an event that’s going to make $4,000, $5,000 or $10,000, but at the same time, if I make $10,000, it’s going to take 100 projects at $10,000 for me to come close to where I need to be. My goal is to take that $50,000 and to see it grow into $50,000.”

‘A dollar or two’

During the council’s May 13 public meeting, Chavis was authorized to begin advertising for applicants for the opera house steering committee. Chavis said the committee will consist of one City Council member and four city residents. Those interested should apply to acting City Manager Tammy Kirkley at City Hall during regular business hours. The council is expected to appoint committee members at its June 10 public meeting.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com The Hamlet Depot & Museums exhibit of an original Hamlet Opera House seat, along with a popcorn box and ticket stub.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
The Hamlet Depot & Museums exhibit of an original Hamlet Opera House seat, along with a popcorn box and ticket stub.

“We’re also requesting financial commitments from community members and businesses alike,” Chavis said, “a capital campaign. No funding is actually being requested at this time.”

Chavis said she is seeking “opera house philanthropists” and “a financial commitment to promise your support.

When the initial $500,000 goal is reached, Chavis said she’ll then call in those promises.

“A dollar or two, whatever you can do,” Bayless said.

Chavis briefed council members about the building. Built in 1912 by E.A. Lackey, it served as “an incredible cultural institution” by entertaining passengers waiting to go from one train to the next. The facility was converted into a movie theater in 1927 and shut down for unspecified reasons in the 1970s.

Much of the discussion to date has been the building’s past, but Chavis is hoping to preserve that for the city’s future — and for the future of city and county residents.

“The bones of this building are beautiful,” Chavis said. “It’s a contributing factor of Hamlet’s Main Street status on the National Register of Historic Places, and therefore well worth preserving.”

The Opera House today

The original facade of the building, Chavis said, was Neo-Classical — “quite beautiful, with three angelic figurines right at the top.” When the Opera House was converted into a movie theater in 1927, the building owner went with an Art Deco facade, “which is what you see now.”

“It’s always been a place that community citizens who remember the Hamlet theater have dreamed to see restored,” Chavis said. “It’s a dream that city leadership shares” and one that “I believe we can accomplish, through community support.”

Chavis acknowledged she’s not a building codes specialist. Other than knowing the roof is in great shape, the rest — plumbing, electrical, heating, air-conditioning and plenty more — have yet to be evaluated.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com The entrance and exit of stage workers before, during and after production. Miranda Chavis said there will need to be more than one for future performances.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
The entrance and exit of stage workers before, during and after production. Miranda Chavis said there will need to be more than one for future performances.

The building, Chavis said, “needs a lot of love. It’s got good bones. It’s got an incredible foundation. It’s got to be brought into the 21st century, which is an incredibly expensive endeavor.”

Lighting for performance spaces along can cost six figures.

Within seconds of entering the Opera House building today, it’s clear even the most basic current fire codes wouldn’t be met without some serious work.

“Already, you an see that there’s design issues. Funneling. This building can comfortable seta 250 to 300 people,” so the entry way “has to be opened up while respecting the historic integrity of the facility.”

There’s work to be done. A lot of work, which will cost a lot of money — seven figures, with know estimate available.

“There’s no getting around that,” Chavis said. “The plaster is incredibly sensitive to heat, humidity and changes to temperature. You want to do it right. We want to make sure everything’s preserved to the best of the ability. The potential of this building is just so incredible.”

Walking into the unlit theater, standing below the balcony and dozens of yards away from the stage, it’s easy to get caught up in Chavis’ enthusiasm. She’s hopeful her enthusiasm is contagious.

Filling a void

Places and the people behind them at Richmond Community Theatre in downtown Rockingham, or Cole Auditorium on the campus of Richmond Community College in Hamlet, have nothing to worry about with this latest project, Chavis said. She insists the three locations could co-exist.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com The new roof has helped these rafters be preserved.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
The new roof has helped these rafters be preserved.

The Rockingham location seats about 150 people, Chavis said.

“It’s a great, beautiful, intimate experience with plays that are provocative and thought-provoking,” she said. “Cole Auditorium is at the other end of the spectrum. It seats approximately 1,000 people and brings in incredible talent: dancing, singing, music. It does amazing things for bringing people from the national stage to our small community.”

This building fits nicely in the middle, Chavis said. There is no cinema in Richmond County. Plus, the building could be used for church revivals, dance recitals, parties and more.

“It’s got a sound business plan,” Chavis said — one that won’t compete with the other two, existing facilities.

“Just in speaking in an indirect way, cultural attractions feed off one another. They enhance one another.”

Chavis points to the city of Salisbury, which has multiple, self-sustaining theaters.

“The fact is, each one has its own niche,” she said. “Because there are so many diverse theater offerings … it has become an attraction for the area. This can be the same thing. The more you have to offer, the better we are as a whole.”

Stage light. Sound equipment. A movie projection screen.

“It’s not cheap,” said Chavis, as she carefully stepped near a large hole in the stage floor to peer into the basement.”

“I wish we had a rich benefactor,” Chavis said. “But we’re a small community that has funded a lot of big projects. It’s going to have to come through baby steps. A lot of communities have made it work, communities of Hamlet’s size. That’s why we know we can do it.”

Chavis takes a break from the financial reality of it all.

“The acoustics in here are just wonderful.”

She envisions large murals on the walls inside the entertainment space.

“Sometimes it looks daunting,” Chavis said, but “the potential is so amazing.”

She’s hopeful the timing is right. The Hamlet Depot & Museums project has been finished for years. Discovery Place KIDS in downtown Rockingham recently celebrated its first year. The people in and around Richmond County will hopefully find a way to support this new project.

“I like a challenge,” said the history major and UNC at Chapel Hill graduate, “and this’ll be a challenge. It’s all about vision. The fact that this is here in our small town and that we have the opportunity to save it, it’s a responsibility but it’s also an honor.”

 

 

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