In December 2014, Architectural Digest published an online photo gallery highlighting 14 American theaters. Siting visual splendor and a colorful history, the Grand Opera House is featured among some of the finest theaters in the country. Click on the graphic above for a direct link to AR.com for the full story.
THE GRAND HISTORY
W.R. Gunn, the preeminent 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 always 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 1904 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, in 1918, 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 Ziegfeld Follies.
In 1936 the Grand was turned into a movie house, and the first floor boxes were torn out. On March 15, 1945, the only world premiere of a major motion picture held in Macon was at the Grand with the screening of God is My Co-Pilot. The last movie was The Sound of Music just 20 years later, in 1965. The theatre fell into disuse in the 1960’s and was scheduled for demolition and conversion into a parking lot, but in 1967 a dedicated group of citizens got together and formed the Macon Arts Council to raise money to save, 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 construct financial support of The Grand were initiated. A major fundraising effort was undertaken to raise endowment monies which today total more than $500,000 in principal support for The Grand, through funds held at the Community Foundation of Central Georgia.
On Oct. 1, 1995, Mercer University signed a lease with Bibb County for the management and administration of the Grand Opera House. Since then, the University has invested millions in capital improvements and operations at the Grand. The lobby and façade have been renovated, the fly system has been replaced, new computer systems have been installed, and the electrical service to the stage has been totally upgraded, 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 even more much needed renovation and repair work during the summer of 2005, including removal and replacement of the original stage floor, while preserving one of Houdini’s trap doors. 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” Program. Additional funding was provided locally by a grant from the Peyton Anderson Foundation.
Now, in 2016, a comprehensive remodel of key public spaces is being prepared for, in order to truly bring the patron experience to the level of quality Maconites and out-of-town guests rightfully deserve, including a full replacement of the theatre’s HVAC system, new and larger rest room facilities (especially for the ladies), and an expanded lobby that can more comfortably accommodate theatre-goers before, during, and after a show. Funding for this project will be provided in large part through the Special Purpose Local-Option Sales Tax renewal, should voters approve its continuance in the fall elections. Grand staff hopes to begin work on this new and even more beautiful Grand as quickly as possible after that. Ultimately, Grand staff also hopes to bring back into service the second balcony, which has remained almost wholly untouched for over 80 years, and promises to add more than 300 new seats to this historic treasure.
For more information about restoration and remodeling plans for the Grand Opera House, contact Executive Director Gram Slaton at (478) 301-5463, or by email at email@example.com.
Funding provided in part by a grant from South Arts, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Georgia Council for the Arts.