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St. James Plaindealer - St. James, MN
  • St. James Parties to Save Opera House

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  • Nearly 200 people turned out for the 17th annual Opera House Gala--the St. James Opera House Restoration Committee's biggest fundraiser of the year--Saturday night, and, for the first time, the public was welcomed in for the dance portion and performance of the band at 9 p.m. “An Evening to Remember in Black and White” began at 6 p.m. with a social hour, then a dinner, and then an auction. For those who didn't pay the $50 to attend that part, they could pay $8--or $15 per couple--for the band, “City Mouse,” and the dance at 9 p.m. “The band is out of Mankato, and they're incredible,” said Linda Hackett, co-chair of the committee board. “They've been together over 40 years.” Nonnie Hanson, a long-serving member of the restoration committee, said, “This is the biggest crowd we've had in years, and I'm so excited.” She credited multiple changes for the influx in attendance, including the band. “They're well-known enough to bring in a different crowd, and we wanted to share our music with everybody by opening it up (to the public at 9 p.m.),” she said. And, indeed, there was a vast cross-section of attendees, from medical professionals and bankers, to farmers and teachers. “We also have more variety in ages, from the young to the old,” she said. “This is the (type of) crowd we want.” The goal of this--and all the other fundraisers by the committee--is to completely restore the Saint James Grand Opera House. Their work on the exterior of the building has already landed it on the Registry of Historical Buildings. “The building was going to be torn down, but we saved it from the wrecking ball,” Hackett explained. “All the profits go to repair and restoration of the 'grand lady.'” Hanson also served as the auctioneer Saturday night, although she admitted to being an auctioning neophyte. Nevertheless, she had a plan. “I don't know any of the auction lingo, but I do know a lot of these people, so I'm going to have them turn the lights up and go table-to-table,” she said with a smile and a gleam in her eye. “I can squeeze them.” Items up for bid included a fajita bar for 20 catered anywhere in St. James from Los Potros restaurant and a hand-carved oak mantel clock made by New Haven Clock Company in New Haven, Conn. The opera house building always had businesses on the first floor--Encore and The Country Collage currently occupy the space--and the opera house was on the second floor, Hackett said. In the 1950s, the upstairs was closed to the public, and the grand staircase was also ripped out. Hackett's committee hopes to ultimately refurnish the second floor into good enough shape that it can function as a community center and stage for events and concerts, and she'd also like to put the grand staircase back in; their next big step, however, is remodeling the front of The County Collage. “A massive amount of work still needs to be done on the interior (of the building),” she said. The building is now owned by restoration committee's 501 (c) (3) non-profit. Anne Sorensen, who has been deeply involved with the restoration process for many years, called it “a fascinating and very stable building.” “The acoustics up there are still perfect, and the balcony is still there,” she said. “Someday, we'd like to have our gala in the opera house.” She estimated that they still need another $2 million to complete the renovation, and she added that it's extremely important to save the old building because--along with the Watonwan County Courthouse--it's the only historic building left in the city. Both the Park Hotel/Hospital and the Armstrong School building were demolished decades ago. Sister's Occasions provided the decorations for the gala, and the food was catered by Jimmy Krogstad, Hometown Cafe, and Heather Wenzel, Encore. Hanson said the catering likely contributed to the attendance spike, since Krogstad had cooked for the gala before when it was in a different location and had received rave reviews. The centerpiece of the meal was fruit glazed roast pork with apple cranberry relish, dessert was chocolate napoleon with mascarpone cream and cherry compote, and attendees noshed on hors d' oeuvres like spring rolls with chili sauce, tomato bisque shooters in mini bread rolls, and risotto balls with sundried tomato and parmesan. Craig and Tracy Hurley said they always try to attend the gala, because they believe strongly in the mission of restoring the opera house. “My dad remembers playing basketball there, and it was quite the place to be,” he said. She added, “They used to have actual operas there, but it detinetly became multi-purpose.” The couple said they shudder to think of what may have happened to the opera house if the restoration committee hadn't swooped in when they did. “Who knows what would've happened? Maybe the city would've torn it down, and we'd have another parking lot,” he said. Sorensen concluded by noting that the committee is always looking for passionate, caring people to help with the mission, and the opera house committee currently has openings on their board. “We're looking for board members, if they express an interest.”
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