Opening Night at the Lerner Theatre Attracts a Full House

June 17, 2011

Robert Spano and Nicholas Roth are accustomed to being welcomed by family and fans when they visit their hometown. But Thursday night, the venue that hosted the internationally acclaimed musicians received its share of appreciation and accolades as well.

Spano and Roth joined the Elkhart County Symphony Orchestra at the first public event of grand opening week at the Lerner Theatre. The two-year, $18 million expansion and restoration project on the 88-year-old building achieved a fountain-of-youth result not lost on patrons, who toured the city centerpiece while telling stories about the venue that was known for many years as the Elco.

Much as they did on the November 1924 opening date of Harry Lerner's theater, ticketholders lined up from the front doors, around the corner of Franklin Street and all the way down to the corner of Waterfall Drive. Theater management opened the doors to the seating area at 7 p.m., after which the crowd flowed into all 1,700-plus seats with unremarkable glitches.

Elkhart residents Chuck and Sylvia Wilson were among the first to arrive. One of the last times he was in the theater, Chuck said, was when he was hanging off of scaffolding while painting the organ's pipes in the 1980s.

"This is just wonderful. It's just what it should be, what it should look like," he said.

The historic night was also a first for Spano and Roth, who had not publicly performed together prior to Thursday.

"We've been wanting to do this for a long time. It's just perfect that it came together here for this occasion," Roth said.

Following a singing of the national anthem by 1,700 voices, Elkhart County Symphony Orchestra music director Brian Groner fed the evening's anticipation by announcing that the ECSO will now call the Lerner Theatre home. Adding to the emotion, Roth and Spano invoked the memory of fellow Elkhart native and mutual mentor Ray Barbour by dedicating their performance to the deceased musician.

Beyond the sound barrier of a mesmerizing performance of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, theater manager David Smith took a moment to regain composure at the intermission of a frentic day. He and the volunteers and staff would regroup at the end of the evening, he said, to work out any opening night kinks and brainstorm how to improve the crowd flow through the main lobby.

The theater's new sound system, screen projector and lighting systems were tested earlier in the week, according to project manager Jack Cittadine. Permanent art from local artists was still being installed. Also, doors were being hung in a second-floor lounge that was designated the Cittadine Room by Mayor Dick Moore.

"It's been kind of like a Chinese fire drill, but it's been kind of fun" Cittadine said before the evening's event kicked off. "We really need two to three weeks to finish it all, but we're 99 percent there."