Release Date: January 3, 2010

The show goes on at the Grand Opera House

The Northwestern

Outside the Grand Opera House in downtown Oshkosh these days all is quiet except for the occasional clickety-clack of debris hurtling down the big, plastic, yellow chute attached to a window near the roof line. Inside is a different story, a grand performance is taking place as workmen go about the task of repairing the historic theater that closed nearly a year ago when it was learned the ceiling was in danger of collapsing.

It's not the kind of performance anyone would buy a ticket to watch, but it's interesting to witness just the same. Here is the scene - men in hard hats gingerly climbing step ladders with dainty color wheels in their big grimy paws to match the deep shade of orange on the new sprinkler heads that will reinstalled to look just right, nimble workmen climbing scaffolds straight up to the "dance floor" - their work station 30 feet from the ground - to align new steel trusses alongside the old, formerly sagging wooden ones, and Grand staff dressed in plaid flannel shirts and jeans instead of business casual attire and blending in with the work crew.

"We've been in jeans forever, the whole year. I got sick of wrecking shoes and good pants," said Grand Executive Director Joe Ferlo. Ferlo and his staff are learning far more than they ever expected they would about construction as they mingle with crew from the general contractor Boldt Construction. "It's been very fascinating. I would never have anticipated this," he said.

By now he is accustomed to climbing the scaffold ladder and runs up and down with the best of them. This way he has been able to see first hand every phase of the repairs. He eagerly points to the problem and explains how it's being rectified.

"Looking at this I realize how fortuitous it was we found this problem," Ferlo said.

In the back of his mind, Jeff Potts, community development director for the Grand Opera House, always knew people loved the theater. In the past year he's learned just how highly people regard the place. Even though it's been a crazy year, he said, it's also been affirming . The near tragedy is bringing the opera house into focus in ways Potts never expected. It's been interesting for him to observe the reaction of the construction crew, for example.

"These guys are your typical average Joes. Many of them had never been here before. It's neat to hear them say 'Wow, this is cool," Potts said.

Ferlo is impressed with the caliber of work taking place at the Grand Opera House. "It makes me so confident of the structural integrity of this building."

In some places the old trusses had moved nearly a foot from where they should have been. Damaged roof joists that left the ornamental ceiling near collapse were uncovered in the 125-year-old theater when work began on installing a sprinkler system in early 2009.

The theater closed its door in February and relocated shows to other venues in the city. The Oshkosh Common Council authorized spending $1.8 million to repair the roof and ceiling after the Grand Opera House Foundation pledged $250,000 for the repairs. An additional $500,000 matching grant came from the State of Wisconsin Building Commission.

Work began in the fall to shore up the roof trusses with steel, tear out and replace or shore up the plaster ceiling and coves, and install and insulate a new roof, adding copper rain gutters and upgrading ventilation and safety systems. The bulk of the work will be finished by early summer. The finish work will begin after that.

"It will include putting the seats back in place one by one like a jigsaw puzzle," Ferlo said.

A grand reopening will be held in the fall with a full season of shows to follow. In the meantime, a project as large as the one taking place at the Grand Opera House could never happen without a dedicated supporting cast. Ferlo said many people and groups in the community have stepped forward. One such group provided $15,000 to help pay for a hearing loop, which is a coil placed into the floor to surround the audience. The loop helps people with hearing aids to enjoy the performances more.

"It's cool that the oldest theater would have the newest technology," Ferlo said. Max Hermans, of Thompson Photo Imagery, next door to the opera house, provided photographic services to document the decorative ceiling before it was removed.

This will help the artists from Conrad Schmitt Studios when it comes time to reproduce the ceiling design. "He laid on his back like Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel to photograph each section. He captured the whole mosaic and did it all gratis," Ferlo said.

"It was supposed to take an hour. It turned into five," Hermans said, laughing. "I documented the whole ceiling on my back, moving over five feet at a time." Hermans didn't mind a bit. He's a big fan of the Grand Opera House.

Ferlo is not surprised by the offers from willing helpers. "The Grand Opera House is more than a building," he said. "It's a living part of the fabric of the community."