The Morgan Opera House: A Community Treasure
The Tudor Revival style building which houses what is now known as the Morgan Opera House was built in 1899 by Louise Morgan Zabriskie to serve as a community focal point. A multipurpose building, it included space for the town hall, the local library, an upstairs theater and a basement jail cell. The building is constructed from brick, limestone, wood, plaster and tile; the craftsmanship, particularly with regard to the interior woodwork, is magnificent.
The raked stage, with a slightly higher elevation toward the back, and pressed tin proscenium are hallmarks of this exquisite Victorian-era theater. With a capacity of approximately two hundred, the size of the hall lends itself to an intimate relationship between performers and audience. Designed as an acoustically superb performance space, the Morgan Opera House is a delight to experience on either side of the footlights.
Original performances in the theater included productions of local community theater groups; traveling shows with hypnotists, magicians and other exotic talent; and silent films with an accompanying pianist.
For reasons not entirely clear, the theater fell into dis-use for a lengthy period leaving the plaster to crumble and generations of pigeons to nest wherever they pleased. A group of community volunteers organized a restoration effort in the 1980s. Funds were raised, and countless hours of free manual labor were expended on repairing and restoring the ceiling, walls and floor; cleaning and repairing the woodwork; and installing electrical wiring and stage lighting. Window shades, a retractable movie screen, and stage curtains were purchased and installed.
The first performance was held in conjunction with a community reception on May 13, 1989. Aurora residents Susan Sandman and Derwood Crocker of the renowned Elizabethan Conversation performed on period instruments. A group of local pickers and singers banded together to form the Bottom Feeders, and offered traditional guitar, banjo and mandolin music. Members of the Restoration Committee served punch and cookies, and garnered more enthusiastic recruits to work on areas of the theater that were still unsafe and roped off.
Bit by bit the theater was brought back to life by many loving hands. Attending a performance combined entertainment with an opportunity to observe the restoration progress. In the beginning, one chose one’s seat carefully with the criteria being not so much proximity to the performer, but the condition of the ceiling over one’s head.
With the installation of a heating system for the 1998 season, the Morgan Opera House was able to extend performances from the warm months of May through September to a year-round basis. All of the administrative work involved in planning, booking, publicizing, and orchestrating productions is done by volunteers.
The performers and operating expenses are paid with revenues from ticket sales, donor contributions, and grants. With the intent to make the performing arts accessible to the community, one of the stated objectives of the Opera House is to offer high quality performance experiences at prices affordable for families. Another objective is to offer a schedule with a wide range of performance genres in each season.
Morgan Opera House Committee
G. Alan Clugston
Ann Mathieson, Treasurer
Mary Ellen Ormiston, Secretary
Ellen Baker Wikstrom, Chair