Opera House works to entertain the masses
It’s her favorite part of the job.
As executive director of the Sandwich Opera House for the past 27 years, Sandy Black has many duties. One of them is being on a committee that chooses what type of entertainment performs at the 153-year-old building that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It’s the best part of my job,” she said.
Located at 1401 E. Railroad St., the opera house hosts more than 100 shows a year of all kinds, for all ages. That includes 25 dates a year set aside exclusively for youth and seniors. At three shows a day, that alone figures out to 75 shows a year. There is also an adult season of 12 shows that runs from September through May and summer theater for children during the last two weeks of June.
Throughout the year, Black says various promoters contact her, sending her tapes and other information about their acts.
“I can see most of them on You Tube,” she said, adding that it isn’t possible to see acts live before contracting them.
In January, Black goes through all the requests, weeding out the ones that are either too expensive or not appropriate for the venue. From there, she divides them into categories to be sorted by a group of four. Besides herself, the others include Rich Bryan, chairman of the board; Alethia Hummel, who is in charge of marketing; and Sherry Loewe, a season ticket holder.
To keep crowds coming back, Black said the committee always strives for variety. The current season started with tribute acts devoted to the Beatles, Patsy Cline and Elvis. There was also humor, such as the Jan. 14 show, “Politics and Pie, a Humorous Encounter with Mark Twain & Will Rogers,” and various other musical styles, including folk, bluegrass and rock and roll.
After choosing 12 acts, Black said she’ll contact the promoters to specify their availability and a final contract. The performers, she said, normally come from the Chicago suburbs, Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota and the local area, such as Ashley Lewis of Sandwich. The whole process takes between four and six weeks.
“We’ll repeat someone if the audience likes it,” she said, adding that they don’t like to have the same act two years in a row.
Some of the more popular acts have been Corky Siegel, bluegrass groups, a traditional Irish group called Switch Back, and various local acts. On April 21, the Sandwich High School Jazz Band is scheduled to take the stage with concert pianist Huntley Brown.
Unfortunately, some acts don’t go over quite as well as one would like, either musically or because they simply don’t draw. One particular children’s group played well, but was just very stiff on stage.
According to its website, the famed opera house officially opened on Jan. 1, 1849 at a cost of $12,000, which was $2,000 over budget, to house both the opera house and city hall.
At the time, several small “railroad towns” built what they called opera houses. Most of them had nothing to do with opera, Black said, noting that burlesque was rather popular then but no town wanted to be known for that form of entertainment.
Although the Sandwich Opera House never hosted anyone like Bob Hope or George Burns, Black said it has offered almost “everything imaginable,” including high school graduations, political rallies, the fireman’s ball, a roller skating exhibition from Aurora and even a chicken show. Some of the more notable acts over the years include singer Jenny Lind, a number of vaudeville acts, the 4 Freshman, the Kingston Trio, Homer of Homer and Jethro and a fundraiser for explorer Sir Edmund Hillary that netted $3,000.
The 1960s musical group the Lovin’ Spoonful twice played the opera house, the last time to film a 10-minute promotional video in which Black’s daughter sat in the first row and is prominently featured.
Even though the Sandwich City Hall has run continually in the same building since it opened, the opera house stopped operating after World War II.
“There was just no money for operating expenses,” Black said.
Sitting dormant for decades, a community committee decided to revive the opera house in the early 1980s.
“The first time I saw it, there were dead pigeons and broken glass everywhere,” Black said with a little laugh, noting that it had been used by Sandwich policemen and Scout troops.
A native of the “thumb area” about 30 miles north of Detroit, Black said she almost didn’t come to Sandwich.
“My husband almost came here alone (from their home in Pennsylvania),” she said with a laugh, adding that she just loved her job as office manager of the Northeast Pennsylvania Philharmonic, which ironically is what led to her current position.
Eventually, though, her husband – who teaches the magic of manners to teachers, scouts, preschools and park districts – talked her into it.
“I can always tell when I run into someone who has taken one of his classes,” she said, with a smile. “They’re always so polite.”
One of her biggest problems in the past few years is dealing with the economy, which has had an impact on filling the 310 seats in the opera house.
Season ticket holders, for instance, have decreased from 89 two years ago to 55 last year and 37 this year. Season ticket holders get an option of choosing four, eight or 12-show packages, all priced at $18.75 a ticket, which includes a $50 membership.
Also, the number of children attending shows has decreased from 10,760 last year to 5,500.
“We have a lot of competition,” Black said.
One thing that may hurt with certain crowds is that the opera house doesn’t serve food or liquor.
Still, there are plans to improve the opera house even more in the future, including plans for upcoming fundraisers to improve seats and address some other conditions that naturally come with age.
As the only paid employee, Black said she appreciates all the community members who volunteer their time and services. There is a core group of about 50 volunteers who help keep the opera house running.
The current season will conclude with the Hello Dave! Trio from Chicago on Saturday, March 31; Huntley Brown, Saturday, April 21; Monroe Crossing, Saturday, May 5; and The Barb City Stompers, with many DeKalb players performing Dixieland jazz and other popular music, on Saturday, May 19.
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