The Lake Benton Opera House has been a part of the community since the the late 1890’s. Since then, it has grown to be a center for a variety of activities, including concerts, plays, and graduation ceremonies. However, it is more than just a building. It brings people from the community and surrounding communities together. Friendships are made, good times are had, and people have the ability to enjoy and be a part of the fine arts. It is a treasure to our community, and one that needs to be cherished.
After World War II, the Opera House began to be used less and less. The television had been invented, and people were losing interest in the building. It fell into disrepair and was scheduled to be demolished in the 1970’s. However, a small group of community members that still believed in the Opera House formed a Restoration Committee to bring it back to its original luster. Operation: Restoration had begun. Led by Charles and Lois Lukens, a small group of prominent community members, including Dorothy Rourke and Jean Carr, promoted the Opera House by publishing editorials in local papers, holding benefit dances, and providing open houses for others to see what the Opera House means for the community. Charles Lukens did many of the physical jobs required to restore the Opera House, including installing a new light board and helping to put in new chairs for members of the audience. Lukens also worked with the SDSU theatre department to see what kind of equipment a successful theatre would need. After working tirelessly to bring theatre back to the community, the Opera House opened again in 1974. It was a great success, and the Opera House’s popularity surged. After only three performances of Arsenic & Old Lace (1974), the patron count was up to 600. This Restoration Committee, a small team of people devoted to the Opera House, was able to convince the community that the Opera House was worth saving.
The Opera House was on the brink of being closed for good, yet a few devoted community members saw the potential the building still had to offer. They did everything in their power to keep the spirit of community theatre alive in Lake Benton, and they were successful; the Opera House has been putting on at least six shows a year ever since their campaign started. However, what many people do not realize is that history is repeating itself. The Opera House has suffered some financial blows that have made it nearly impossible for the building to run efficiently. Combine that with the substantially declining numbers in attendance at shows and one can see the Opera House is, in other words, “down on its luck”. If things do not change, if the Opera House cannot make a profit, there could be a possibility of closure in the near future.
For the members of the community that are active in the Opera House, this is a devastating thought. The Opera House is a place of creativity, of expressing oneself. It has been the home of a number of aspiring actors and performers. For example, Kaila Tingle, an American Idol contestant, discovered her love of the stage when she auditioned for the Lake Benton Opera House’s production of “Cinderella” back in 2007. Since then, she has released her debut album and has come back to pay tribute to the Opera House by holding a benefit concert earlier this summer. I myself became interested in theatre because of working at the Opera House. The experience I have earned there has earned me scholarships in theatre, and I’m grateful to the Opera House for giving me that chance. Sonya Karels, a Minneota native, also credits the Opera House as being a place of origin for her performing arts career. Karels is currently one of a select number of students accepted at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City. She previously starred in a variety of short films in Los Angeles as well as making an appearance on the hit TV show “Glee”. While doing theatre at her local high school, she also came to the Opera House for several summers to perform and do the choreography for several musicals. When asked what she describes the Opera House as, she gives a sweet smile and a simple answer: Home.
Karels’ answer is the opinion that many of the Opera House alums hold. It is a home to them, a home for their theatre family. Yet the building isn’t just for thespians. The building is on the National Register for Historic Places. It is something that makes our community unique. Often I have spoken to people from outside communities and counties, and, upon saying I am from Lake Benton, they respond with “Oh, you have that wonderful old Opera House!” We probably take it for granted, but it is something Lake Benton is lucky to have. It is a building of recognition, a facility of distinction, and one that ought to be revered and preserved.
Looking back to the first time the Opera House was in dire straights, the solution to the problem was community support. Once again, the solution comes in a one-word answer: community. If we, as a community, can realize all that the Opera House has to offer, we can keep the building going. If we can see what it has done for young artists and what it can continue to do for the community, we can save the Opera House. There have been a few people in the community that have done a tremendous amount to help the Opera House because of what it is worth to Lake Benton. One person of distinction was Carol Mensen. Carol spent countless hours at the Opera House cleaning and making sure that it was in perfect condition for a performance. She donated her time and her money to that building because, to her, it wasn’t just “that building”. It was a place that she believed in, a place for the community to enjoy together, and it is a place where she will always be remembered. Yet she was only one person. If one person could make that much of a difference, could give that much, how much of a difference could a community as a whole make? The Opera House will only thrive as long as there is a community backing it up. You cannot have “community theatre” without “community”.
Now I understand that the theatre isn’t for everybody. Not everyone likes to act. Not everyone likes to work backstage. Community support doesn’t necessarily mean auditioning for a show or building a set. Community support could be promoting the Opera House in your own place of business. Community support could be volunteering for one of the various committees the Opera House has. Community support could even be as simple as attending the shows. As an actor, I love a good audience. However, the audience members that affect me the most are the ones who aren’t related to someone in the cast, the ones who come just because they want to see the show or they want to support community theatre. The audience members who come to support the community are so vital to the Opera House’s success, and for anyone that’s ever been one of those audience members, I truly thank you.
Our community is a small, tight-knit one. I’ve always liked that about Lake Benton. We are neighbors, we can rely on each other. We celebrate together in our times of triumph, and we rely on each other in times of struggle. We are, in essence, a family. The Opera House buys its supplies from local businesses to support that family. The cycle cannot stop there, however. Now it is the community’s turn to support the Lake Benton Opera House.