BGT deTours: Lexington Opera House - Lexington Luminary

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Wednesday, July 10, 2019

BGT deTours: Lexington Opera House


On July 10 2019, The Bluegrass Trust for Historic Preservation took a deTour to check out the storied Lexington Opera House.

History
The Lexington Opera House (LOH) was built in 1886 and opened as a theatre with its first performance in 1887. At the time Lexington – often referred to as the ‘Athens of the West – was more culturally recognized than either Louisville or Cincinnati, and the LOH was widely-known to be the costliest and handsomest thespian venue in the country; it is now one of only 14 original pre-1900 theaters still offering live shows in the United States. Originally boasting 1200-1400 seats (back when patrons weren’t quite as large as we are today), actors would arrive by rail or stagecoach to bring stories of epic proportions to life. The entire stage was flooded for ‘Henley Regatta;’ during ‘Ben Hur’ conveyor belts in the stage floor enabled chariot races with live horses; and the production of ‘Country Circus’ brought with it 30 train cars to accommodate the mile-long parade of circus animals that graced the stage. During the Vaudeville era renowned stars such as illusionist Harry Houdini, actress Mae West, composer John Philip Sousa, and ballerina Anna Pavlova honored the LOH with their performances.

Resurrection
While still under private ownership, the LOH was converted to a movie theatre. At first they featured ‘B movies,’ then worse, until the building was finally condemned in the 1960's, around the same time Rupp Arena was being conceptualized. Long-time supporters George and Linda Carey and W.T. Young, Sr. appealed to the Lexington Center to purchase the LOH, successfully, only to have the roof fall in two weeks after the sale was complete. This turned out to be a serendipitous event as a previously-concealed second balcony was discovered among the wreckage. The original entrance faced busy Broadway, but the current entrance was a laundromat and bookstore, so the entire block was acquired to assure there would be enough space for expansion and improved traffic flow. The chandelier adorning the defunct Broadway entrance was a gift from Garvice Kincaid sourced from a French chateau, and rumored to have been valued at over six figures at the time. Sconces were purchased to match the showpiece, meanwhile the prominent walnut door frame was revealed and matching plaster molds were applied to additional doorways. Narrow wooden stairs were replaced by the iconic and beloved winding staircase designed by Jim Ross, founder of RossTarrant Architects, who was famous for his restoration efforts. The proscenium arch roses decorating the venue were painstakingly recreated by Ross and his wife in their garage, using a rubber mold and no less than 6,000 tons of plaster.

Present Day Productions
Primarily anchored by performances from the Lexington Theatre Company (LTC), the LOH will host over 1000 artists on its stage this year, including Broadway stars and actors from all over the country. Many shows are accompanied by a 29-piece local orchestra composed of professionals, students, and teachers. The LTC is committed to an educational mission, granting aspiring high school and college actors the opportunity to commingle with industry veterans, as well as offering apprenticeships and internships that span all aspects of the the industry, and outreach programs to expose younger children to the theatre community. Currently the LTC rents all their sets from elsewhere, a process which starts one year in advance and significantly impacts which titles are presented locally. They are also laying the groundwork to be a summer stock theatre, with a goal of three off-season shows.

Venue and Future
The LTC, Lexington Philharmonic, Lexington Ballet Company, and other affiliates of LexArts are subsidized by the Opera House Fund, a non-profit created in 1974 to support the Lexington Center. The fund pays for the majority of each entity's rent and ancillary costs, totaling approximately $300,000 each year. Today the LOH has a seating capacity of just under 900. The historic Broadway entrance will soon be adorned by a historically accurate marquee, and is expected to be lit by September. The second level celebrity portrait gallery - formerly used as an apartment - showcases those who have performed at the LOH since the 1976 renovation and each piece was painted on-site. The lower level evokes a more laid back atmosphere, where both performers and event attendees alike have been known to lounge around the quaint Pardy's Pub. Either space can be reserived for receptions, donors parties, clients, weddings, and so on.


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