by Julie Ann Madden and
The Akron Opera House Board of Directors has received notification from Paula A. Mohr, Ph.D., Architectural Historian of the State Historical Society of Iowa, that the Director of the National Park Service was pleased to announce that the Akron Opera House had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places as of July 10, 2012.
Research for the historic designation was a two and a half year process carried out by board members Tim Blum and Karen Taylor-Mortensen, who first attended a workshop which outlined the process and gave insight to the type of information required for the nomination forms.
Once the initial pieces were gathered, assembled and shipped off to the Iowa State Historical Society, a review via conference call was held. This was later followed by a meeting for review in Des Moines. Blum and Taylor-Mortensen attended the review in person along with individuals from other communities across the state.
The Akron Opera House application was reviewed by the state committee four times before being sent to Washington D.C. for review by the National Park Service, which is the body granting the National Historic designation.
You may ask, so what’s the big deal with this designation, and why did you work so long and hard to achieve it? Once a building has been placed on the National Registry, there is a possibility of receiving matching grants for the upkeep and preservation of the building which are not available without this designation.
Construction of the 106 year old Ye Old Opera House at the corner of Reed and Second Streets began in downtown Akron in 1905. Interior finishing work was completed in 1906. The $18,000 building was erected by the American Insurance Company of Des Moines, whose officials came into the community and promised to build the town an opera house if enough insurance was purchased.
It is the largest building in downtown Akron in length, height and width. The white pressed brick with blue pressed brick trimmed building is 46 x 90 feet with a front elevation of 48 feet.
The theater’s grand opening was held Feb. 15, 1906 with the production of a domestic comedy-drama about the opening of a settlement on the Sioux Indian reservation entitled, “The Homeseekers.”
According to Akron’s Centennial book, “The play was a disappointment in several respects. The reasons were: 1) The three leading members of the company left the day before on account of financial troubles. 2) The man in charge of the scenery was on strike, making long waits between acts. 3) Before the play, members of the company demanded their salaries in advance before they would appear. 4) Instead of a cast of 20, half that number appeared. 5) Attendance was poor, attributed to high prices charged $5 and $2.50, the 1906 critic felt this was too expensive for a town of Akron’s size. (However,) the Magee orchestra of five pieces, from Sioux City, furnished splendid music during the play and for the dance following.”
Two weeks later, the first opera, a musical comedy called “The Rajah of Altara,” was presented. Admission prices were drastically reduced to 75, 50 and 25 cents.
During the Great Depression, popularity of the opera house waned, and due to neglect and disinterest in about 1940, the theatre section of the building was closed. The doors were locked to the public, the seats and stage flooring removed.
“The theatre was forgotten, abandoned to dust and neglect,” according to Akron’s Centennial book. “Its only occupants were bats, birds, occasional curious visitors, cobwebs, dust and filth. For 30 years, forsaken by friends, the Ye Old Opera House patiently waited.
What preserved the building was its business location. Since 1906, the rest of the building has been rented to businesses, churches and even partially as an apartment.
In the late 1960s, local school teacher and Drama Club sponsor Richard G. Jacobs from Buffalo Trading Post, S.D., needed a place where his 60 Drama Club members could work without conflict with other school activities.
When Jacobs learned of the old theatre and toured it, he “immediately saw the theatre could be used again.” His students agreed to clean it up, and permission was granted from building owner Kenneth Harvey.
Jacobs began a letter-writing campaign soliciting funds and several local community groups and volunteers pitched in to help restore the theatre.
Their first performance was “Paint Your Wagon” in September of 1970.
In 1974, the Akron Community Theatre board of directors purchased the building. In 2008, the name was officially changed to the Akron Opera House.
For the theatre’s 25th anniversary of continuous productions in 1995,”Paint Your Wagon” was performed again.
In 2004, the children’s production of “Oz!” included 60 children from Akron and Hawarden — the largest youth cast to date.
For the building’s 100th birthday in 2006, the musical “Oklahoma!” also a repeat performance, was produced with a cast of 39 local people plus many volunteers behind the scenes.
As the theatre’s board of directors celebrates the theatre’s 42nd season this Fall, 218 productions have been performed since 1970 including children’s productions, comedies, dramatic productions, Broadway and Off-Broadway hits, concerts and variety shows.
One of Jacobs’ students, Doug Olson of Akron, has been acting on the theatre’s stage for 34 years now and has also been directing productions for the last 18 years. He has served on the board of directors for the last 20 years, and currently serves as its president.
“It’s just the history of the theater — that we’re using this building for exactly what it was used for 100 years ago,” said Olson. “It’s hard to believe that ever happens…I want to keep it going for the community, my kids.”
Other board members are Tim Blum of Westfield, Karen Taylor-Mortensen, Julie Breitbarth, Valorie Philips, Monte Erks, Ryan Schuknecht and Dwain Wilmot all of Akron.