Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Greensboro Opera House

On my last full day in Greensboro I was able to get a private showing of the inside of the Greensboro Opera House. In the late 19th and early 20th century opera houses were constructed throughout the rural south as cultural centers for passing theater groups, dances, town hall meetings, and the like. The first floor was usually used as retail space, the auditorium with a stage and a balcony was situated on the second and third floors (for my German readers: the first floor in the US is the ground floor, the second floor is the German first floor).

An old picture of the Greensboro Opera House.
The store to the right burnt down on new years eve in the late 1980s.

With the decline of the rural south these opera houses were abandoned, in many towns they were torn down after being left empty for decades. The Greensboro Opera House was built in 1903 to replace its precursor that had been built in 1890 and had burnt down. When movies started, the Greensboro Opera House was the first movie theater in town before a building solely for this purpose was built on Main Street. When Walker Evans and James Agee came to Greensboro in the summer of 1936 the Opera House must have still been used. Supposedly Walker Evans took a picture of two men in front of the Greensboro Opera House. Shortly after it was abandoned and probably closed on the eve of World War II.

Walker Evans: probably photographed in front of the Greensboro
Opera House. I could not locate this picture in the loc.gov yet,
therefore I cannot provide full credit. Will try to provide this later.

Walker Evans: [Untitled photo, possibly related to: Movie poster,
vicinity of Moundville, Alabama], courtesy loc.gov. Maybe films were
advertised just like this in Greensboro.

The Greensboro Opera House was left unused for decades. However, before being closed completely, stores occupied the first floor. When the space was opened to fit a single retailer, separating walls were removed and the stairs, that used to be accessible directly from the sidewalk to go upstairs without entering the stores, was removed and boarded. The upstairs halls were left empty without the possibility to enter them (except for youths who would climb up the neighboring roofs and enter the second floor through the windows until they were boarded). It is unknown if the Hitler-graffiti really dates to 1945 or if it was put up later.

Thus the upstairs venue fell into a deep sleep and survived without being vandalized. In 2003 people of Greensboro started an initiative to rehabilitate and revitalize the building. They bought it and started fundraising which eventually led to the current state: The first floor has been rehabilitated and a new staircase has been put in.

The second floor will be restored eventually just as the balcony which was removed when the retail stores downstairs wanted to put business signs on the facade. When the auditorium was remodeled to fit film projection (or when sound film was introduced) the tin ceiling reflected the sound in an unwanted manner. It was covered with cut-up cotton sacks therefore it is very well preserved today.


Upstairs many things were found: old signs, some of the original chairs, the original chandelier, the old coal stoves, old movie programs, and more. Even the old metal rails of the balcony survived there.


Next year the state of Alabama will celebrate its bicentennial. On this occasion composer Joseph Landers was commissioned to create an opera which will be Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Hopefully there will be a preview held in the Greensboro Opera House although the auditorium will probably not be finished.

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