Early History – The Beginning
The Menominee Opera House has a rich and storied history. Funded primarily through the sale of stock by a group of prominent lumber barrons who desired to enhance the cultural life of the community, The Menominee Opera House was built in 1902. Designed by Chicago architect George O. Garnsey, it was originally equipped with a full-rigged stage house, four dressing rooms, trap/green room, lobby, and 1,000 seats in eight boxes, orchestra, mezzanine, and gallery. It was quickly heralded not only as the finest theater north of Milwaukee, but also the pride of the city during Menominee, Michigan’s heyday as a booming lumber town.
The facility originally presented stock companies and road shows that toured by train, hosting such luminaries as Maude Adams, John Philip Sousa, and Texas Guinan. Interspersed were political rallies, suffrage meetings and local productions. Unfortunately, this grand original era of The Menominee Opera House would be short-lived.
Time Brings About Change
As technology advanced and motion pictures gained popularity, the type of live entertainment provided by opera houses during the first half of the 20th century gradually became dormant. The opening of a competing movie theater in 1929 caused economic failure for The Menominee Opera House, and ownership reverted to the city. From 1929 to 1947, it functioned as a community auditorium hosting school graduations and class plays as well as other entertainment.
Disaster stuck in the winter of 1950. While under private ownership once again and serving as a movie house, a fire broke out in the basement during the morning hours of March 9th. It spread slowly upward through the stage floor and ignited the scenery creating an inferno that reached up into the stage rigging and loft. Although firefighters were able to gain control of the fire before it burned the auditorium, the water used to battle the blaze later froze in the cold March air adding to the damage that had already been done.
An Uncertain Future
After the fire, the Menominee Opera House building was purchased during bankruptcy proceedings. The new owner used the the building as a warehouse and thus saving it from being torn down. In 1952, the seats were removed and the entire floor was repoured with concrete in order to create a level base for the storage of paper pulp.
The fate of the building would hang in the balance over the next half of the century – a see-saw between restoration and condemnation. Several efforts would be made over the next few decades to restore the builing to its original glory. These efforts included the Civic Heritage Development Group in 1968 and the eventual purchase of the building by the Vennema family around 1979.
The strongest effort to finally restore the Menominee Opera House came along in 2004 when the Vennema family corporation agreed to donate the building to the newly formed Menominee Opera House Project. After two years of fundraising, the non-profit organization received the deed to the building. Funds for a master plan, including a state grant, were secured in 2007 and a design team chosen for the restoration master plan. The ultimate goal is to restore the building for the purpose it held for almost fifty years – a live performance and community event venue.