In her first few days as interim chief of the Memorial Opera House, Michelle
Smith said she learned quickly just how much of a magnet the 119-year-old
venue, at 104 Indiana Ave. in Valparaiso, was for political grumbling.
A year ago when the County Council voted 4-3 to use $250,000 of county
income tax money for operations and repairs, select members of the County
Council openly disputed the role the County should be playing in operating
the Opera House as an “entertainment business.” Others have said the Opera
House holds a cultural significance for the County and is a driver for both
the arts and economic development for the county.
But Smith, picking up where former business director Brian Schafer left off
when he resigned in July, aims to purge the Opera House of many its
imperfections and help it become the self-funding venue it has the potential
“We want to make it so (the Opera House) will no longer be an issue,” Smith
This fall, Smith shrunk the Opera House’s budget by about $100,000 and
continues to make cuts. Recently Smith submitted to the Commissioners a list
of 28 cost saving initiatives being implemented which includes:
• Decreasing the amount of hours of box office staff.
• Terminating contracts with a film distribution company after attendance
was not breaking even.
• Submitting an application for non-profit postage, which if approved will
save the Opera House about $5,000 per year.
• Ended a website hosting contract, a $600/yr. savings.
• Reducing the number of musicals and increasing the number of public domain
plays performed, costing the Opera House less for rights and pit orchestras.
• Entering the County copier program which will lower costs from $6,000 to
$1,200 per year. The office uses a lower grade of paper to receive twice the
amount at half the cost.
• Dry cleaning services are now donated.
• The Opera House no longer uses storage units, a cost savings of $2,400 per
• Theater directors and lead musicians have decided to donate their time and
Smith added that the Opera House intends to only purchase items that would
benefit it “immediately and repeatedly.”
“(Each) employee is aware of the current status of our budget,” she said.
“We have become bargain hunters and beggars.”
One big piece of Smith’s strategy for next year is revitalizing the Memorial
Opera House Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit group which would be able to
apply for grants and collect tax-deductible donations. She met with two
grant writers this week who are eager to begin searching for opportunities.
The set up will be similar to what the Porter County Museum of History has
in place. The money gathered by the Foundation will help the Opera House
expand its programming, but the building itself will remain property of the
County, which will continue to pay for operations, maintenance and salaries.
The Foundation will also open up educational programs and camps for children
interested in performing arts. Smith said education programs will later
expand to more age groups. In the formation stages are theater classes for
The reestablishment of the Foundation will also bring a new focus on the
historical reverence for the opera house and its purpose as a Civil War
memorial to Union veterans. The new website launched weeks ago with the help
of the county tourism bureau conveys this with historical photographs of the
venue and tells of how it got its start when the Grand Army of the Republic
built the auditorium in 1893 to commemorate Civil War veterans and reach out
to the community.
The website highlights special moments that have taken place. Film actress
Beulah Bondi of “It’s a Wonderful Life” fame began her theater career in a
production of “Little Lord Fauntleroy” on the Opera House stage.
“We want to promote ourselves as historical and bring more to the community
than just entertainment,” Smith said.
In more fundraising efforts, Smith said the Opera House will launch a
capital campaign under a consultant’s plan which aims to bring in donations
totaling $1 million to $4 million over the next two years.
The Opera House has prompted frequent political clamor due to the high cost
of building preservation and upkeep. A study done by DLZ Indiana last year
concluded the total needed to address all repairs currently needed would be
over $1 million.
The $250,000 approved in November 2011 under Schafer’s request was for
refurbishments and a new boiler to give the budget some wiggle room for new
hires but so far all money has been spent on operations. Council members
Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, Jim Biggs, R-1st, and Jim Polarek, R-4th, questioned if
giving the Opera House CEDIT money was the right move in view of pressing
challenges such as funding E-911 and the Animal Shelter.
Just this month, the County Commissioners gave the nod to $225,000 in CEDIT
emergency funds for Berglund Construction of Chesterton to reinforce the
brick foundation, replace doors and repair roof damage. The difference this
time is a contractor is attached to the job, said County Commissioner
President John Evans, R-North.
For his part, Evans said the Opera House needs to be taken care of under the
auspices of the County and he supports the performing arts as it is written
in the state constitution that part of County Government’s role is to
“To turn your back on it would be a mistake. It’s going to continue to be a
county venue as long as I am (in office),” Evans said.
Evans said he has been impressed by Smith’s “game plan” and her energy in
making the improvements.
Smith is in the running for the permanent Business Director position. The
Commissioners will announce their choice for the permanent director in the
next few weeks. The director’s spot is one of the Opera House’s two
full-time positions. The venue also employs an artistic director and a small
number of part-time workers.
A longtime supporter of the Opera House, outgoing County Council At-Large
member, and South County Commissioner-elect, Laura Blaney expressed her
enthusiasm for the educational opportunities that will be available to
Blaney also said the Opera House has helped the local economy because about
half of the patrons are from outside Porter County who spend their money in
shops and restaurants nearby.