Grand Opera House–Macon, Georgia
The “Grand Lady of Mulberry Street” was built in 1884 by W.R. Gunn, one of the top theatrical architects of the day. Gunn, who had designed more than 100 other theatres in the United States, boasted “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.
The theater was originally called the Academy of Music and its 58’ x 90’ stage was the largest south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The theater seated 2,418 patrons, almost one-fifth of Macon's population at the time. It wasn't until its 1905 renovation that added its current seven story facade that it became known as the Grand Opera House. In its career, the Opera House has seen its share of famous and strange performances. The 1908 production of Ben-Hur employed live horses and chariots The performers at the old theater read like a "Who's Who" of theatrical greats: Charlie Chaplin, John Phillip Sousa, Sarah Bernhardt, Will Rogers, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Lionel Barrymore, Ethel Barrymore, Bob Hope, the Allman Brothers Band, Ray Charles and Harry Houdini. Presently the stage has a number of trap doors, one of which is still in operation. Locals in the know claim the trap doors were installed specifically for Houdini's spectacular escapes.
In 1936, the movie industry put the grand old dame on the skids. It tried to remain solvent as a movie house and hosted Macon's only Hollywood premiere, 1945's God is My Co-Pilot. It went downhill fast and by the 1960s plans were afoot to replace it with a parking lot.
Fortunately, in 1967, the Macon Arts Council, a group formed to save and restore the Grand stepped in. They raised money for renovation and had the property placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. For a time, it reopened as a live theater in 1969 as the group continued their fund-raising efforts. Its latest salvation came n 1995 when Mercer University signed a lease with Bibb County to manage the Grand. Today, it looks much like it did in its heyday.
You can still catch a performance there. The Season at the Grand features professional productions but many local performances are held there as well. Of course, it has its resident ghost as well. Randy Widner, the former managing director who committed suicide in a room called the Thunder Room above the stage in 1971, may pop out and chastise you if you are not respectful of "his" grand old opera house.
Grand Opera House
Friday, January 18, 2013 2:00 AM