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Opera house still stands, thanks to community

In a small town like Lake Benton, there isn’t always a lot to do. That’s why it was paramount that the town save the 122-year-old Lake Benton Opera House from being razed 47 years ago.

Lake Benton Opera House president and director, Mark Wilmes, in front of the historic building. Photo by Scott Thoma

“The Opera House has been a big part of my life,” said Mark Wilmes, who has served on the 15-person board of directors at the Opera House since the late ‘90s, has been president of the corporation since 2000, and has directed 41 plays and musicals there. “And it’s been an important part of Lake Benton for many years.”

A few weeks after completion of the construction of the original Opera House, the wood-framed structure burned to the ground in December 1895.

Quickly, the community banded together to raise funds to rebuild their main source of entertainment. In just 13 months, the Opera House was standing again; this time it was built with bricks.

“It was presented as ‘the finest opera house in this part of the country,’ which is what it was with its spacious stage, horseshoe-shaped balcony, and box seats for special guests,” said Wilmes.

Over its first three decades, the 300-seat Lake Benton Opera House was first used as the site for plays, as well as traveling troupes of musicians and actors.

And because the seats could be removed easily and there was access to a kitchen in the basement, the Opera House was also used for special dinners, dances, political rallies, graduations, confirmations, Decoration Day observances, community organizations, basketball games, and even an occasional funeral.

“With the advent of movies, from the 1920s through the early 1950s, the Opera House first became The Majestic Theatre and later, The Valley Theatre,” said Wilmes. “And a variety of programs and community events continued to be held there.”

With television becoming increasing popular, the Opera House was being used much less after World War II, and the neglected building fell into a state of disrepair, Wilmes said.

The city planned to demolish the building in 1970 and possibly sell the lot for another business to build in the same location.

Instead, the citizens in this small town in southwest Minnesota again banded together to save the historic building.

In 1976, the Opera House was incorporated as a nonprofit organization to restore the historical building as a cultural center and a facility for community activities, and to promote and sponsor the arts for Lake Benton and the area.

Restoration, which began in the early ‘70s, has been an ongoing project to this day. Funding has been provided by grants following the Lake Benton Opera House being placed on the National Register of Historic Places on March 25, 1977.

“New seats, a fresh paint job, a new stage curtain, and some new wiring were added in February and March of 2001,” said Wilmes. “New windows, a new balcony rail and period paint colors added interest to the front exterior. In the last 15 years, we have also continually upgraded the stage lights and sound system.”

Exterior of Lake Benton Opera House. Photo by Scott Thoma

The Kimball Building, which was originally a hotel, is adjacent to the Opera House and was restored to its original 1890s appearance.

“The Kimball Building is used for a green room during shows and has a live video feed of the stage so actors can see where the play is at while waiting to go on,” Wilmes noted. “The basement is completely renovated into dressing rooms, and the upstairs where the old hotel rooms were is now filled with costumes from front to back.”

The front portion of the Kimball Building is now being used to sell treats and refreshments during intermissions of a play or musical. The original ticket booth in the front lobby is still being used.

There are a only a few of these types of 19th century opera houses remaining, let alone still in operation, in the state.

The late Michael Johnson, who was well known for the song Bluer than Blue once held a concert at the Opera House several years ago. And Emmy-nominated actor Barry Corbin (Maurice Minnifield in Northern Exposure) was filming a scene for the movie Hap and Ashley last summer in Tyler and stopped by the Opera House to take in the musical Urinetown.

“He chatted with the cast members after the show and was very complimentary,” Wilmes recalled.

Wilmes got involved with the Lake Benton Opera House in 1992 when an accompanist there, Terri Lovre, of Tyler, convinced him to try out for a part in the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

Since 1973, 164 plays and musicals have been performed at the Opera House, with two more still scheduled this year. On average, there are three plays and two musicals performed each year, including the recent production of Beauty and the Beast.

“I think the most difficult show I’ve ever been involved with was last fall when we did A Christmas Carol,” Wilmes remarked. “It was a very large cast, and we were rehearsing and presenting the show leading up to Thanksgiving when everyone is so busy.

“Because of everyone’s schedule, we also went one less week of rehearsals than we normally do for a musical. Add in the fact that it is the most difficult music to sing and play I’ve ever had to deal with. It turned out to be a monumental task.”

While the majority of the actors and crew are from Lake Benton and the surrounding area, last summer’s production of Urinetown included six professional actors from the Twin Cities.

“They were paid through a large grant that was written to bring people the message about keeping our water clean in the state with the show Urinetown,” said Wilmes. “That was a great experience for everyone.

“The summer before, when we did Fiddler on the Roof, we had three people from the Twin Cities come down for the summer to participate. Two of them had been in Fiddler when we did it in the ‘90s and wanted to come back and participate again.”

Peter Engels, of Minneota, who has been in several productions at the Opera House, said he enjoys the diversity of the people that participate.

“The Opera House is great because all sorts of people congregate there,” he said. “There are liberals, conservatives, singers, actors, technically gifted individuals, and many more from all walks of life.”

Chesney Panka, of Marshall, has performed in six shows at the Opera House. Each performance holds a special memory to her.

“There’s something so special about being able to share something I’m so passionate about with others,” she said. “I love performing at the Opera House. I enjoy bringing other people’s favorite shows to life.”

The Lake Benton Opera House is also currently being used for many other things, such as the Miss Lake Benton pageant, a talent contest every June, acts from various organizations in and around the area that rent the building, and by the Lake Benton American Legion for the Memorial Day weekend program. A wedding was also held there this past August.

The Opera House holds a lot of memories over the past 122 years, including second and third generation actors involved in the plays. However, not every performance has gone as smoothly as Wilmes would have liked.

“We were doing Brigadoon in the ‘90s, and in the middle of the show, somebody dropped a flashlight from the catwalk backstage,” he recalled. “A bright silver Eveready D cell battery came slowly rolling on to the stage, made a couple of slow pirouettes, changed directions and gradually came to rest on the front of the stage. I would guess nobody saw anything the actors on stage were doing. Everyone was watching the battery.”

And, of course, the one fear every director has occurred during the production of Oklahoma several years ago.

“The opening song from Oklahoma, is Oh, What a Beautiful Morning sung by the lead character, Curly,” Wilmes said. “He came out to open the show with his fly down and the tail of his red shirt sticking out the front. There were about 15 cowboys and ranchers offstage motioning to him and pointing to his zipper.”

Whether it’s zipper up or zipper down, as the saying goes, the show must go on.

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