W.R. Gunn, the pre-eminent theatrical architect for the Grand Opera House (originally called the Academy of Music) and more than 100 other theatres in the United States, stated “I am the only theatrical architect and practical builder in the U. S. of A. who will guarantee the line of sight and acoustics when the entire control of the auditorium and stage is under my supervision, and will forfeit $1,000 when my construction proves a failure in either case.” Mr. Gunn got to keep his money.
When the Grand was built in 1883-84, its 58’ x 90’ stage was the largest in the southeast. At the time, the house seated 2,418 – almost one-fifth of Macon’s 15,000 population. In 1902 the stockholders of the Academy of Music announced plans for major renovations. The front of the old building was removed and replaced with the seven story Grand Building with shops in storefronts along the street. It was reopened in 1905 as The Grand Opera House.
Over the years the Grand presented minstrels, vaudeville, burlesque, musical comedy, and drama. In 1908, a production of Ben Hur was presented with live horses and chariots on a treadmill installed in the stage. Ten years later, Charlie Chaplin conducted the John Phillip Sousa band to raise money for the war effort. A memorial service for President McKinley was held on the stage. Other famous performers at the Grand included: Madame Sarah Bernhardt; Houdini; Pavlova; Will Rogers; George Burns & Gracie Allen; The Gish Sisters; Robert Downing; Lillian Russell in “The First Night;” James O’Neill in “The Count of Monte Cristo;” Maude Adams in “The Legend of Lenora;” and Marylin Miller in “The Zigfield Follies.”
In 1936 the Grand was turned into a movie house, and the first floor boxes were torn out. On Feb. 21, 1945, the only world premiere of a major motion picture in Macon was held at the Grand with the screening of “God is My Co-Pilot.” The last movie was “The Sound of Music” in 1965. The theatre fell into disuse in the 1960’s and was going to be torn down and made into a parking lot. In 1967 a group of citizens got together and formed the Macon Arts Council to raise money to restore and operate the Grand. A sold-out Gala reopening took place on April 6, 1970, with Robert Shaw conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and the Grand was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. During the 1980s, new energy and volunteer efforts to undergird financial support of The Grand was initiated. A major fundraising effort was undertaken to raise endowment monies which today totals åmore than $500,000 permanent support for The Grand.
On Oct. 1, 1995, Mercer University signed a lease with Bibb County for the management and administration of the Grand Opera House. Since then, Mercer has made substantial investment in capital improvements and operations at the Grand. The lobby and facade have been renovated, the fly system has been replaced, the carpeting has been replaced, new telephone and computer systems have been installed, and the electrical service to the stage has been totally replaced, with a new service/capacity of 1,600 amps, tripling the previous capacity. In 1996, Mercer created the GrandKids Arts Education Series to provide rich learning opportunities to students, through exposure to professional music, dance and theatre performances at The Grand.
The Grand underwent much needed renovation and repair work during the summer of 2005. Among the work completed was the removal and replacement of the original stage floor, while preserving Houdini’s trap door. A separate HVAC unit was installed in the balcony and noise reduction features were installed in all of the duct work. The entire theater was repainted in a bold, new color scheme, and more than 100 fiber-optic, twinkling stars were installed in the ceiling. The project was partially funded by a grant from the United States Department of the Interior, National Parks Service, Save America’s Treasures Grant Program. Additional funding was provided locally by a grant from the Peyton Anderson Foundation.
Over the past decade, attendance at the Broadway Series has more than tripled; the GrandKids program continues to serve thousands of area grade school students through preparatory video workshops and attendance at professional music, dance and theatre presentations; and the community use of the facility has increased by more than 50 percent. The Grand Old Lady of Mulberry Street is more alive and vibrant than ever!
For more information about the ongoing restoration work at The Grand Opera House, call (478) 301-5465.