The Grand Opera House opened its doors on August 9, 1883 with the production of 'The Bohemian Girl' by the C.D. Hess Opera House Company. William Waters, a local architect, was chosen to design the new opera house. Waters had designed over 100 buildings in Oshkosh, including the public library and museum. Theatergoers experienced lavish and modern Victorian design, from the hand-painted drop curtain to the elaborately detailed wall and ceiling artistry of local artist J. Frank Waldo. Roman influences, evident in the huge curved ceiling beams and columns rising up on either side of the proscenium, combined with the Queen Anne style in the auditorium, reflected the opulence of the era. Although the official capacity of the new theater was 921, additional chairs could comfortably accommodate crowds of more than 1,000 people. 'Jump seats,' which folded out from the walls and from the ends of the seats, brought the total possible seating capacity to 1,224.
The First Renovation - 'Save the Grand'
The fight to ‘Save the Grand’ lasted 20 years and faced numerous financial, civic and organizational obstacles. Finally, in 1980, citizens requested that a referendum be offered to city residents regarding the destiny of the building. The referendum was approved by the Common Council. Two-thirds of Oshkosh voters replied ‘yes’ to the referendum question on whether or not the City of Oshkosh should acquire, restore and engage in the operation of the Grand Opera House.
On October 4, 1982, the marquee-breaking ceremony marked the official start of the restoration project. The first year was spent clearing the building of debris from the past four decades and raze the unsafe areas. In addition, the adjacent property at 106 High Avenue, which dates from the same period as The Grand, was purchased and connected to the theater. This addition provided space for restrooms, a greater lobby area and street-level access for the handicapped, as well as a meeting room and administrative offices on the second floor. It is in fact now the main entrance to the complex.
When the building was finally ready for reconstruction, only the proscenium and the balcony remained. The interior was then rebuilt from the basement up. The sympathetic restoration was meticulously carried out in an effort to have a facility that is as much like the original as possible, while using modern materials and architectural knowledge and conforming to current building codes.
The newly renovated opera house hosted its reopening dedication and open house on September 27, 1986. After nearly four years and expenditures of approximately $3.5 million the building’s restoration was complete. On October 3, 1986, the new Grand Opera House opened its doors the same way it had over a century before, with a newly-staged performance of “The Bohemian Girl.”
At its reopening in 1986, Grand Opera House was set up as a rental hall and operated as a unit of the city of Oshkosh’s Parks Department. The classification of The Grand as a rental hall prevented its management from promoting the theater or scheduling performances directly. The greatest problem for the management was finding enough presenters who could afford to bring their performances to the opera house and successfully market their events.
In 1989, a proposal was offered by the Oshkosh Opera House Foundation to change the Grand Opera House from a rental hall to a combination presenting/rental hall, like most other theaters in the United States. Despite some opposition, the plan was accepted and the Oshkosh Opera House Foundation took over the management of The Grand leasing the building from the city in November of 1989.
Second Restoration - 'Stand with the Grand'