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Encore! Shuttered for 20 years, the curtain rises on the Peabody Opera House

Originally published in the West End Word, Sept. 23, 2011.

By Eileen P. Duggan

The Peabody Opera House stage and seating. Photo by Diana Linsley.

The last performance at Kiel Opera House was on May 4, 1991, featuring a concert by the St. Louis Philharmonic Orchestra. The historic concert hall at Market and 14th streets in downtown St. Louis will reopen Oct. 1 as Peabody Opera House with a benefit show starring comedian Jay Leno and singer Aretha Franklin.

Billed as “An Encore 77 Years in the Making,” the grand re-opening will celebrate the venue’s past, present and future and will benefit the John L. Trotter Multiple Sclerosis Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine.

“With certainty, I can say that the opening night gala will be a night to remember,” said Mike McCarthy, CEO of Peabody Opera House. “It will be a special celebration of an iconic St. Louis treasure.”

The first few concerts announced include Wilco on Oct. 4, The Who’s rock opera “Tommy” featuring Roger Daltrey on Oct. 8, and Widespread Panic on Oct. 12. Green day’s rock opera “American Idiot” is scheduled for March 2 to 4. But it won’t be all rock shows on the venerable Opera House stage. Before the grand opening, on Sept. 19 the Opera House hosted a sneak premiere of Ken Burns’ new PBS documentary, “Prohibition.” Future performances will include ballet, dance concerts and Broadway touring shows.

The Opera House closed in May 1991 when then-owners of the St. Louis Blues hockey team tore down the adjoining Kiel Auditorium to build a new hockey arena, which opened in 1994 as Kiel Civic Center. The Blues owners also own the arena and the Opera House. The promise was that the Opera House, which first opened in 1934, would be renovated and opened again in 1994. But the team changed ownership, the arena’s name changed twice (currently Scottrade Center), and the Opera House remained closed. Theories, rumors and accusations abounded over the years, until a new Blues ownership group, SCP Worldwide LLC led by David W. Checketts, entered the scene in 2006.

Checketts, who grew up in Salt Lake City and lives in Connecticut, previously oversaw a major renovation of Radio City Music Hall as CEO of Madison Square Garden.

“When [Checketts] bought the Blues five years ago, he had his eyes on the Opera House as something that had value from the very beginning,” said Chris McKee, CEO of Optimus LLC, the developer and a co-owner of the Opera House, along with SCP Worldwide and Joe McKee, his brother. Joe McKee is CEO of Paric Corp. which is the general contractor on the renovation project.

“Dave had a vision from the gitgo that he wanted to take that building and bring it back to life,” Chris McKee said. “When you have an owner of the building and the Blues who had a passion for that building — that was the spark that made this thing go.”

Five years and $78.7 million later — thanks to a complex combination of city, state and private funds and naming rights sold to Peabody Energy — the Opera House is back in its full glory. The main concert hall, the grand foyer, four smaller assembly rooms, two grand staircases, marble columns, terrazzo floors and glass chandeliers all have been meticulous refurbished. Of course, the building has been modernized with updated heating and air conditioning systems and a house sound system fine-tuned for the building.

More than 500 union carpenters, pipefitters, painters, laborers, electricians — “every trade you can think of” — worked on the project, McKee said.

One of the iconic bears guarding the entrance to the Peabody Opera House on Market Street. Photo by Diana Linsley

In addition to the 3,100-seat main theater, the Opera House has four smaller assembly rooms. Two of them are meeting/banquet rooms, one is the Peabody Lounge for VIPs and box seat holders, and the fourth is the Pepsi Encore Room, the only one that is configured for performances, possibly by community theater groups. All are available for event rentals, as is the Kiel Club behind the ticket lobby.

The renovation work started in June 2010 and workers are still touching up details, McKee said.

McKee is “beyond happy” with the results. “It’s turned out better than we even expected,” he said. “When you see it on paper and you work with it on a regular basis, that’s one thing, but then to see it actually happen and take shape — it’s been an amazing experience.”

Once upon a time, Kiel Opera House was the home of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the Light Opera Guild and Dance St. Louis and hosted performances by the New York Metropolitan Opera, many Broadway touring shows, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Paul Anka, Ray Charles, Liberace, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and many others. It was the site of a legendary appearance in June 1965 by the so-called Rat Pack: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Johnny Carson.

Sport Capital Holding–St. Louis LLC, an SCP affiliate that is contracted to operate the facility, is working to build a similarly varied menu of performances. “You’ll see the type of offerings broaden as the season continues to unfold,” McKee said. “I think everyone will be pretty happy with the stuff we’ve got coming.”

Some confirmed performances include the Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker, Nov. 30 and Dec. 1; “How the Grinch Stole Christmas: The Musical,” Dec. 7 to 18; a dance concert by Shen Yun, Feb. 18 and 19; and a New Year’s Eve show featuring Cedric the Entertainer. Peabody operators recently announced a Broadway package of four touring shows that patrons can buy and mix and match.

The operators are even trying to get the St. Louis Symphony to play on the stage again. “I am hopeful that we’ll be able to find a way to have the Symphony do a show or two inside the Opera House,” McKee said.

And of course, a new generation of high school and college graduates may soon join the thousands who have crossed the Opera House stage to accept their diplomas.

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Reprinted with permission from the West End Word/Times Newspapers. To see more photos, view the original article at http://www.westendword.com/Articles-c-2011-09-21-176953.114137-ENCORE.html#123.

For a related article on this blog, see https://dugganpubs.wordpress.com/nonfiction/new-life-for-st-louis-landmark/

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