Many cities have faced the challenge that Hicksville, Ohio, did with the Huber Opera House. Once a building of splendor, there came a time when it had to be decided whether to save it or let it go.
Twenty years ago, the city made that choice.
From Vaudeville to bar to restoration
“It was an opera house and then it became a vaudeville house and a movie theater,” said Chris Feichter, director of operations for the Huber Opera House and Civic Center. “It fell into disrepair in the ’60s and ’70s and became a bar which ruined a lot of the interior. But 20 years ago, the community decided to save the Huber. They decided they didn’t want to tear it down and turn it into a parking lot.”
And when Hicksville decided to save the Huber, it wasn’t a passive thing.
Volunteers have tackled the project in a very hands-on way, replacing, restoring, and remodeling each aspect of the theater to return the building to its former glory. The project continues with work still in progress on the balcony.
The building is also historical, not just a part of Hicksville’s history, but holds a special place in the theater world beyond that city.
“It’s a hemp house,” Feichter said. “The stage is still run with sandbags and ropes, which is very unusual now. It’s run by hand with pulleys with a drop system. We still have the original curtain, and it’s dropped from the top rather than pulled from the sides.”
Huber a hub for Hicksville
As progress has continued to restore the Huber, the place has become a hub of activity in Hicksville, not only making it a theater again but also making it a thriving civic center. Visitors might be there for a show or they may be attending a community meeting or even a wedding.
But as a theater, it has provided a special outlet for local talent. Four years ago, a production company, Opera Lane Performers, was formed along with a junior division, Huber Youth Productions.
“We’ve had four years of productions now,” Feichter said. “We breakdown the ages so many people can participate. We have three different levels. We have a group for ages six to 10, and they have a two week camp in June. Then our youth group is ages 10 to 14, and they just did Willy Wonka Jr. in February. Our oldest group is 14 and up, and graduates — we call them our alums — will often come back and participate as adults.”
The Huber and their production companies have received support from their home state, allowing them to grow significantly in their relatively brief history, Feichter said.
“In 2018 we received a grant from the Ohio Arts Council which allowed us to have workshops teaching them about costuming and how to make props,” he said. “We were able to create our own drop for our production of The Lion King, and we’ve been able to use that for many of our other productions.”
They have also accrued enough in the way of costumes and sets to loan out or exchange with various nearby theater companies. And as Huber Youth Productions and the Opera Lane Performers have grown to three production a year each, they’ve been able to secure enough materials to take on some bigger productions including one they’ve been wanting to tackle for a few years.
“This October 18-20, the adult group will be doing The King & I,” Feichter said. “I’m working on the schedule a year ahead, and we knew we wanted to do The King & I for the last two years, so we’ve been gradually collecting the things we’ll need for that show. I wasn’t able to announce that show for a while because the touring production was still out. The day after the performance in Fort Wayne, I was able to announce our production.”
This month the Huber Opera House hosts a production of Anything Goes performed by Huber Youth Productions and taking the Huber stage July 26-28. The show was one requested by its director Julie Hall.
“I’m always planning ahead and often someone will come to me and say, ‘There’s a show I’d like to do,’ and I look at the feasibility and try to make it happen,” Feichter said. “Julie Hall asked for this show because she’s been in the show twice and has directed it previously. She’s always wanted to do it again because she loves the show.”
Helping to make the show possible is that costumes from one of those productions, hand-sewn by Hall’s mother, have survived and will be used again for this production.
Anything Goes is just one of many events which have and will take place at the revived Huber Opera House. Its rebirth has been a boon for even the local schools.
“Our high school put in a stage, but it’s very shallow and at the end of the cafeteria,” Feichter said. “Those cafetorium situations are good for awards ceremonies and things, but they aren’t as good for performances. So our high school and middle school stage their shows here, too. And we have concerts and Christmas shows and other things here, too. It’s a busy facility.”
Celebrating its own success
As the year winds down, the Huber Opera House is planning a celebration in December to mark the 20th anniversary of the decision to save that facility, one that has become a special part of the Hicksville community as the events court the kids and bring the parents along as well.
“As we’ve grown and have done these productions with the kids, we brought in families who have become involved. Last year’s production of The Music Man had 80 people involved, so it was a very family-oriented show. But as patrons and parents come into the Huber and see it, they all say, ‘Wow, this is really cool.’ Especially if they’d been here when it was a bar, they can’t believe how beautiful it is now.”
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