Grand Opera HouseGrand Opera House & Box Office
100 High Avenue, Oshkosh WI, 54901
920.424.2350 or 1.866.964.7263 Oshkosh Opera House Foundation Administrative Office
222 Pearl Avenue, Oshkosh WI, 54901
The Grand Opera House is a historic opera house located at the corner of High Avenue and Market Street in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Each year, over 25 public performances and approximately 10 youth events comprise the fine arts season along with additional activities including community theater, corporate meetings, and weddings. The 668-seat house has the intimacy of a European-style theater with outstanding acoustics. Velvet seats, a ladies’ warming room, and marble fireplaces all accentuate the Victorian décor. The beauty and uniqueness of the hall continues to draw artists and audiences from around the world.
The Grand Opera House opened its doors on August 9, 1883 with the production of ‘The Bohemian Girl’. Theatergoers experienced lavish and modern Victorian design, from the hand-painted drop curtain to the elaborately detailed artwork on the walls and ceilings created by local artist J. Frank Waldo. During the 1890’s the new theater attracted acts from around the country, from Grand Opera to Broadway Musicals. In the 1920’s, it was Vaudeville. The unique acoustic quality of the hall, which has been said to rival that of the huge Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, brought considerable fame to Oshkosh.
In the late 1920’s the theater was closed for several months for remodeling and redecorating. Improvements included modern heating and ventilation along with lighting and plumbing systems. In 1950, the new owners renamed the building “The Grand Theater.” In order to achieve the appearance of a modern movie theater, the building’s entrance was moved from the center of the façade to the corner of Market Street and High Avenue.
Even with these renovations, the building was still falling into disrepair. Local citizens James and Joanne Alderson were concerned about the building, and formed a committee titled “Save the Grand.” The fight to “Save the Grand” lasted 20 years and faced numerous financial, civic and organizational obstacles. Finally, in 1980, citizens requested a referendum to city residents regarding the destiny of the building. Two thirds of Oshkosh voters replied ‘yes’ to the referendum question on whether or not the City of Oshkosh should acquire, restore and engage in the operation of the Grand Opera House. On October 3, 1986, the new Grand Opera House reopened its doors the same way it had over a century before, with a newly staged performance of “The Bohemian Girl.”
While evaluating the building’s structure prior to installing a new fire sprinkler system, engineers discovered some structural flaws in the main roof trusses of the Grand Opera House. After weeks of evaluation, it was determined that the structural issues were compromising the integrity of the building. The Grand closed for emergency repair on February 27, 2009.
The Opera House Foundation worked with representatives of the City of Oshkosh, assisted by the Oshkosh Landmarks Commission and the Wisconsin State Historical Society, to develop a plan to reconstruct the structural elements of the building while maintaining its decorative and historic features. The price for repair and restoration was just under $2 million. The issue of funding the repair became a political one, as city councilors debated whether or not to fund the repair. The Opera House Foundation, along with support from key local businesses and service organizations, began a campaign to generate community support. The movement, known as the “Stand With the Grand,” galvanized the community. Children donated their allowances and lawn mowing money in collection boxes, while businesses and individuals pledged a “Grand for the Grand.”
On August 25, 2009, the issue came to a climax, as several hundred people rallied in the parking lot of the Oshkosh City Hall singing, chanting, and encouraging councilors to vote in favor of the repair funding. As the evening ended, what was expected to be a highly-contested vote resulted in an unanimous decision in favor of funding the Grand Opera House repair and restoration. The second restoration of The Grand Opera House began in the fall of 2009. On September 16, 2010, The Grand was reopened to a gala opening-night crowd, as actor/singer/songwriter Jeff Daniels provided an evening of laughter and tears.
The theater was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
William Waters, a local architect, was chosen to design the new opera house. Waters had designed over 100 buildings in Oshkosh, including the public library and the museum.
Although the official capacity of the new theater in 1883 was 921, additional chairs could comfortably accommodate crowds of more than 1,000 people. “Jump seats,” which folded out from the walls and from the ends of the seats, brought the total possible seating capacity to 1,224.
Vincent Price, Harry Blackstone, Samuel Clemens (as Mark Twain), John Phillip Sousa, Harry Houdini, Sarah Bernhardt, Maude Adams, Celeste Holm, and President William Howard Taft were among the performers who graced the stage of the Grand Opera House. In more recent years, Hal Holbrook, The Smothers Brothers, Debbie Reynolds, and most recently, Jeff Daniels have performed at The Grand.
During the first major renovation prompted by “Save The Grand.” when the building was finally ready for reconstruction, only the proscenium and the balcony remained. The interior was then rebuilt from the basement up. The sympathetic restoration was meticulously carried out in an effort to have a facility that was as much like the original as possible while still using modern materials, architectural techniques, and while conforming to modern building codes.
During the second “Save The Grand” restoration the theater faced half a performance season and no venue, thus the Oshkosh Opera House Foundation proceeded to move over twenty-five scheduled performances to seven alternate venues for a four-month period. The first show was moved that same day The Grand was closed to the Alberta Kimball Civic Auditorium with only four hours notice. The show opened that night across town, only a half-hour late.
During the second “Save The Grand” restoration, local politics were volatile. When the time came to vote on the reconstruction of The Grand, many citizens came to speak their minds. An overflow crowd packed the council chambers and adjacent rooms. For three hours over fifty citizens, ranging from middle school students to senior citizens, spoke passionately to the councilors about what The Grand meant to them and to their families. This community support helped lead the council to vote unanimously to approve funding to restore the Grand Opera House.