116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The curtain was about to fall on the Brooklyn Opera House when a group of concerned citizens stepped to breathe new life into the century-old building in the heart of downtown.
They began applying for renovation grants in 2018, formed the nonprofit Brooklyn Community Development organization, and purchased the opera house from the city for $1.
“It was starting to become a burden to the city, and so it worked out well for everyone to have a nonprofit owning it and managing it,” said Laura Manatt, 41, of Brooklyn, who serves as vice president of the Brooklyn Community Development board. She also manages the opera house and the adjacent Michael J. Manatt Community Center, named in honor of her late father-in-law.
The opera house was shuttered after the floor collapsed in 1998. Another group bought the building that year, installed a new roof and ripped out the termite-damaged floor. The scenery from a “Charlie Brown” production, halted by the collapse, was still on the stage when the most recent renovations began, Manatt said.
“There’s been several attempts to save it, but nothing’s really gotten off the ground until now,” she noted, adding that if a new roof hadn’t been installed 20 years ago, the building probably would have been beyond repair.
The opera house was renovated top to bottom between May 2019 and June 2020, when it began its new act as a performance hall, event center and movie theater. Capacity was reduced from the original 250 seats to 225 roomier new seats, and a new concrete floor was installed, which won’t become a meal for hungry termites.
The building basically was just a shell when the work began, Manatt said. Between installing new seats, heating and cooling systems, movie projection equipment and all the other front-of-house and backstage amenities, the renovation totaled about $4 million.
That included enclosing the alley between the historic venue and the community center, which opened in April 2008 and can accommodate 350 to 400 people. The enclosure has created an event center campus where large groups can use both buildings.
Grants jump-started the fundraising efforts, with a $100,000 state Community Catalyst Building Remediation grant; a $500,000 Enhance Iowa grant; and $50,000 from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources for asbestos remediation and recycle/reuse of materials removed from the building, Manatt said.
But not everything is new. The building’s history also has been preserved.
“With it being a historic tax credit process, and going through the National Park Service to get the historic designation, we did keep as many historic elements in the building as possible,” she said. “While the balcony was not in as good a shape as it is now, the front curvature and design and some of the beams are the same as you would have seen a long time ago.
“Believe it or not, the seating area had termite damage, but the terminates never made to stage, so the stage is all original, the catwalk and the fly are all original, but we obviously made them more secure so you’re comfortable walking around up there,” she said. “The tin ceilings are all original, and they restacked the bricks that were starting to shift on the front of the building, and tuckpointed the whole building to make the building more structurally sound.“
Despite the pandemic, first- and second-run movies, several wedding receptions and the school prom have been held there, with safety precautions and reduced capacity in place. Moviegoers also can rent the theater for $150 to host a private party, and bring in the films they want to see.
On Friday, the biggest act to take the stage in recent years is coming to town, when the spotlight shines on Grammy-nominated country singer/songwriter George Ducas.
“I’m excited to get back to Iowa after way too much time away,” Ducas said in a prepared statement. “I have great memories of playing venues like the Iowa State Fair and am excited to not only play some memorable hits, but also to play some of my music from the current album ’Yellow Rose Motel.’ ”
His first two albums have sent six songs to the Billboard charts, including his Top 10 hit, “Lipstick Promises.” He’s also written songs for Garth Brooks, the Eli Young Band, Dixie Chicks, Trisha Yearwood and other country stars.
An event complex is an important addition to the vitality of the town, Manatt said.
The venue has 10 part-time employees and community volunteers, including high school students. Admissions, concessions and donations will keep the doors open, as well as word-of-mouth to generate event excitement, she noted.
“If you come in downtown Brooklyn right now, it’s a very, very nice, well-kept small town,” Manatt said. “There were only a couple buildings left that really needed a face-lift, and the opera house was probably the most visible one. But it really has been a catalyst for our little restaurant across the street and our bar down the street.
“To see the vibrancy and the energy in the community when we have events is really exciting,” she said. “It’s a pretty small town to have such a cool venue.”
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