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Untold stories of Cheboygan Opera House preserved in new book

Kathy Johnson in the greenroom of Cheboygan Opera House June 15, 2023.
Michael Livingston
Kathy Johnson in the greenroom of Cheboygan Opera House June 15, 2023. (Michael Livingston / IPR)

Kathy Johnson makes her way behind the red velvet curtains on the stage of the Cheboygan Opera House.

The Victorian-era arches are soaring high above and she’s lit up by a warm glow from hundreds of tiny lights.

She makes her way down to the green room where colorful posters log decades-old performances. In the corner is something truly special, a piece of history, a grand piano that found a home in the opera house in 1903.

This piano has survived the opera house’s golden ages and darkest times. Sporting an ivory keyboard and Victorian-era carvings, everything was meticulously made by hand.

Johnson helped restore the piano in 2021. Now, it still provides entertainers with a place to practice before they take to the stage.

“It’s just another example of why you should pay attention to your history,” Johnson said.

The greenroom piano is one of many stories Johnson tells in her book “Cheboygan Opera House, The Early Years: 1877-1927.”

Johnson is a Cheboygan native and former executive director of the opera house from 2017-2021.

She worked on most of the book during the pandemic when the performing arts industry was crippled and the Opera House went dark for more than a year.

“I knew that the only way that I could reopen would be to pull back the curtains of the past,” she said. “To tell the untold stories and the lost stories. I could bring people back to the opera house that way.”

Having to suddenly close wasn’t a first, a second, or even a third for the nearly 150-year-old building.

Only about a decade after it opened in 1878, it was demolished by a fire. In 1903, another fire burned the roof down. In 1966, the Opera House was condemned by the fire marshall for nearly 20 years.

That’s how Kathy remembers it when she grew up just on the other side of the block.

“The entire time I was growing up, the Opera House was closed. So I had never been here,” she said. “I think my brother snuck in once with his guitar and played on the stage. But the Opera House was condemned and they were ready to demolish it in the early ‘80s.”

Before the demolition trucks rolled in, Cheboygan residents rallied together and saved the opera house by raising money and working with the state and federal government in 1984.

For the third time, residents proved they wanted a place to celebrate art and culture.

Kathy said those stories of perseverance are why she took the job as executive director in 2017 when she moved back to Cheboygan after about 40 years away.

The book started as weekly stories about the Opera House’s famous performances for the Cheboygan Daily Tribune.

She wrote about Thomas Edison showing off his talking machine, how award winning actresses Mary Pickford and Marie Dressler stunned audiences and how 31 horses danced on stage.

“You will recognize the names of your relatives, friends and neighbors who helped build and support the Opera House. Generations of local families appear on stage and cheer from the seats,” Kathy writes. “Above all the Jewel of the North still stands as a hub of the community, where over a million people have walked through the doors.”

Johnson said half of the proceeds from the book will go toward supporting the opera house. A 2022 feasibility study showed it will take $8 to $10 million dollars to fully repair and restore the building.

She’s already begun work on a second book that will chronicle the opera house through the 20th century.

“All the memories are held here. When you look at the intricate woodwork and the design, you can see into the past,” she said. “To help people hold on to their past gives us a better sense of community, a shared history, and helps people come together.”

Michael Livingston covers the area around the Straits of Mackinac - including Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties as a Report for America corps member.