Grand Opera House
The Riley Center, also known as the Grand Opera House and formally as the Mississippi State University Riley Center for Education and Performing Arts is a performing arts and conference center in Meridian, Mississippi. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and renovated in September 2006, it is remarkable for being preserved to its original beauty while incorporating the latest in modern technology and amenities. The Grand Opera House and the adjacent Marks-Rothenberg Department store were built in 1889 by two half brothers, Israel Marks and Levi Rothenberg. In addition to the extensive theater renovation, the department store was completely transformed into a state of the art conference facility. Together the theater and conference space make up the Mississippi State University Riley Center for Education and Performing Arts, owned and operated by Mississippi State University-Meridian Campus.
Original Opera House
In the late 19th century, Israel Marks and his half-brothers, Levi, Sam, and Marx Rothenberg, expanded their retail operations by opening a new wholesale and retail mercantile store and an adjoining hotel. The site chosen covered almost a half a block — five lots facing 5th Street and three lots consuming the entire length of 22nd Avenue between 5th and 6th Streets. Construction began in 1889, under the direction of C.M. Rubush, a builder from Meridian. The exterior of the building was designed by Gustavus Maurice Torgerson, architect of Meridian’s original City Hall. The original designs included a mansard roof, establishing the architectural style as late Victorian, Empire/Romanesque.
For an unknown reason, construction of the hotel was interrupted in process, and the decision to go with a Grand Opera House was made instead. Factors that may have influenced the decision may have been:
- The top price for a ticket to a first-run production by a traveling company with a star, set at $1.50 (about the same price as a room in a decent hotel)
- The profit margin would be much larger for an opera house than a hotel
- Torgerson was familiar with the highly successful Grand Opera House of New Orleans, completed only a few years earlier.
- Mr. Marks spent most of the year in New York City. He would have been aware of the more successful shows, and, most probably, the booking and production houses of Klaw and Erlanger, the founders of the Syndicate—the most powerful commercial force in the American theater at the turn of the century.
Seeking quality work, the Marks-Rothenberg partnership hired J.B. McElfatrick of New York and St. Louis to design the interior of the Grand Opera House. McElfatrick had designed over 200 theaters in the United States, including the National Theater in Washington D.C. and the Metropolitan Opera House of Philadelphia, among others.
The stage, at 30 feet wide by 50 feet deep, could accommodate the largest, most lavish shows from New York. Under the 35-foot high arched proscenium was an ornate painted border which featured the famous “Lady.” The “Lady” eventually became the symbol of the Opera House, and today the Grand Opera House is often referred to affectionately as “The Lady.”
The Opera House was completed in late 1890, in time for the December 17 opening of Johann Strauss’s, “The Gypsy Baron,” performed by a German language company from New York. The same company performed Adolph Mueller’s “The King’s Fool” the next night.
Unlike the first two nights’ presentations, most plays were simple melodramas that would have been very familiar to the city’s residents. Sometimes, though, big names would perform; among them were Sarah Bernhardt in “La Tosca” and Henrik Ibsen in “Ghosts”. The most popular form of entertainment at the opera house was that of the blackface minstrels, in which white performers with black paint on their faces impersonated African Americans in a humorous manner. Sometimes African American companies such as “Black Patti” were given the stage as well.
Alterations and Renovations
The Opera House was remodeled in 1902, reopening on September 17. The change involved moving the original entrance left to the site of the former gallery entry. Three marble steps led up to the entrance, which had a metal extension gate that could be closed when the theater was dark. Electricity capabilities were also added to the opera house in 1902.
The Opera House was remodeled again in May 1920, when it was converted in part to a movie theater. The renovated theater opened on June 7, introducing the silver screen that can still be seen in the backstage area of the theater. This transition also divided the gallery into two areas, allowing a center opening for the film’s projection.
Fall of the Opera House
The demise of the Opera House began in 1923, when it was leased to Saenger Films of New Orleans under title of the Plaza Amusement Company at a cost of $1,000 a month for a period of 25 years. The lease was for thirty years, but in 1927, Saenger bought the larger Temple Theater and wanted to gut the opera house into an office building. Because Levi Rothenberg, the previous owner (and builder) of the opera house had inserted a clause into the lease specifying that the building could only be used as a theater, the company abandoned the building and refused to pay rent. After Saenger reneged on the lease, a long court battle ensued. The Rothenbergs eventually won the case, but the Great Depression had begun by then, Saenger had declared bankruptcy, Levi Rothenberg had died, and the Grand Opera House was closed.
After the closing of the Opera House, the department store continued to operate under various ownerships until 1990.
Riley Center Today
Now fully restored, The MSU Riley Center is designed to entertain and enrich, further lifelong learning, and improve the quality of life for people of Mississippi and West Alabama through education and the arts.
The Riley Center includes a theater which seats approximately 950 people, a 200-seat studio theater, and 30,000 sq ft (2,787 m2) of meeting space, including a large exhibit hall, break out rooms, and board rooms, all equipped with teleconferencing capabilities and built-in technical features to create the optimal meeting environment. – From Wikipedia