A connection to history

“Once Upon A Time At The Opera House” was written by James Berton Harris and features three Michigan opera houses, including the Ramsdell Regional Center for the Arts, in Manistee. (Auditorium of the Calumet Theatre photo by Laura Miller)

Decades after performing on Ramsdell stage, author features three theaters in book

MANISTEE — What began as a curiosity about opera houses in remote Michigan cities, turned into a decade-long project for James Berton Harris that recently came to fruition.

Harris, who now lives in Ann Arbor, started researching and writing “Once Upon A Time At The Opera House” in summer 2008. The book features three historic Michigan theaters: Tibbits Opera House in Coldwater, Calumet Theatre in Calumet and Ramsdell Theatre in Manistee. Harris has been active in academic and professional theater for more than 45 years.

“The summer between my undergraduate work at University of Michigan and before I started my graduate work at Yale, I was hired as an actor with a company out of Detroit and we played in the Ramsdell Theatre. That was my first experience in this kind of theater,” said Harris.

“It was interesting to me that in this town that was a relatively small, contained town and a little bit remote, off the beaten path, there was this beautiful theater that looked like a New York theater and the backstage area looked like in those backstage musicals.”

James Berton Harris recently wrote a book, “Once Upon a Time at the Opera House,” which features three opera houses in Michigan, including Manistee’s Ramsdell Regional Center for the Arts.

The author wondered what a theater was doing in Manistee, the incentive for building it and many other things.

“I was very young, and I was too distracted by my own career to take the time to really research it, but it was in the back of my head,” he said.

While in graduate school, Harris worked at the Calumet Theatre and had the same reaction.

“Here I was in this virtual ghost town and here is this beautiful opera house,” he said. “I didn’t know the history of Calumet; I didn’t know that at one time it was a booming copper town with 3,000 people living in the area. When I was up there, there was only about 700 people in the town. As I said it was a virtual ghost town, or it was then. Again, I was curious to know, but again, I didn’t actually research it.”

As he approached retirement from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he was Associate Head of Theatre and director of the Division of Design, Technology and Management, people would ask about his future plans.

“It just came out of my mouth one day, ‘I’m really curious to know about these beautiful opera houses in Michigan in these kind of remote cities. And I’m curious to know why they were built in the first place and what was done in them and that sort of thing,’” Harris said.

In the summer of 2008, while on his way to visit his sister in Crystal Lake, Harris was driving through Manistee and decided to stop by the Ramsdell Theatre for another look.

“As fate would have it — a little serendipity — there was a stand out in front, one of those sidewalk tents, saying that they were doing tours at 1 o’clock that day,” Harris said. “… I came out after having seen the theater again, which was very nostalgic, and I thought ‘I think I may really do this.’ That was my incentive.”

Harris first researched the Croswell Opera House in Adrian because it was closest to him, but it didn’t make the book. For the Ramsdell Theatre, he first talked to Mark Niesen who directed him to Nancy Lyon.

James Berton Harris played the Scarecrow in the “Wizard of Oz” at the Ramsdell Theatre in 1963; he was a member of an acting company out of Detroit. Harris recently published a book about three Michigan opera houses, one of which is the Ramsdell Theatre.

“So I made an appointment with Nancy, and I saw her several times over a period of a couple years,” he said. “I would come up to Manistee and we would have lunch. She shared with me some memorabilia that she had.”

During his research, Lyon directed Harris to the Manistee County Historical Museum where he received help from then executive director Steve Harold and current executive director Mark Fedder.

“J.B. first came to the museum to do a cursory glance of the research materials that would be helpful in him writing his book,” said Fedder. “During those years he returned many times to do more research whether it was looking through old newspapers, our files regarding the Ramsdell Theatre and the Ramsdell family or our photograph collection.”

Fedder said the museum was lucky to play a role in the project.

“J.B.’s love of theater and his fondness for the Ramsdell and it’s unique history was very apparent from the first day he walked into the museum,” he said. “He was one of those researchers that you really enjoy talking with and working with.”

One of the book’s features is production history, and a large part of that information came from souvenir programs from Ramsdell anniversaries provided by Lyon. However, those did not include lectures, concerts or non-theater activities that took place at the Ramsdell.

“I wanted to include that too, because these opera houses all served the community not only by presenting professional touring productions, but they were kind of civic centers,” Harris said. “That information was not available, so I ended up the last few years coming up to the library and going through the microfiche of the newspapers and pulling out any of the references to lectures or concerts (non-theatrical events that took place at the theater) to make the production history.”

Xavier Verna, executive director, Ramsdell Regional Center for the Arts, is excited that the Ramsdell is featured in the book.

Pictured is a poster for “A Chinese Honeymoon” that was the opening production at the Ramsdell Theatre in 1903.

“Of course, there’s a long history with the Ramsdell and it already has a very special story attached to it. Many of us around town know about these stories, but this really tries to give you a comprehensive view of the development of the idea that was the Ramsdell Theatre. Of course, TJ Ramsdell’s life too,” he said. “It talks about Manistee as well, and just gives you more context about where Manistee was at the time. I think it’s very interesting in that respect.”

Verna provided Harris with some archival information and photographs as well as background information on the Ramsdell Regional Center for the Arts, which is now managing the theater.

“I think it’s a great book; I think it carries with it a lot of information and context for certain terms,” he said. “It was interesting to learn about opera house, how that even came about and the history behind that. I think it’s got a little bit of something for everybody to enjoy.”

During his research, the author made a few trips to the Cheboygan Opera House, however, that building also did not make the cut.

“What happened was it was just too much information for one book so I had to start kind of editing,” he said. “My first idea was not to make it as comprehensive as I wanted to, and I started making interior cuts until I realized I was cutting the guts out of it and what I really wanted to be able to do, I wasn’t doing because I was doing so lightly with five theaters and so I finally cut it down to three.”

Acting with a Detroit company in 1963, James Berton Harris performed in George M. Cohan’s comic-melodrama “The Tavern” on the stage of the Ramsdell Theatre. The theater is one of three featured in a book Harris wrote about opera houses in Michigan.

Harris came up with his own criteria for the book: opera houses that are still in operation, still producing theater or doing live entertainment, those in towns with a population of 12,000 or less and those that are stand alone theaters.

“I wanted to do, because I’m from the theater, I wanted to do opera houses that were built to do live theater,” he said. “When I started coming up with a criteria, it started limiting the number of opera houses that met my criteria, which was totally arbitrary. There’s no extraneous reason for selecting what I did.”

Harris also has a personal connection to each theater, which he said may have been a subconscious reason for choosing them.

“I worked as an actor for one summer at the Ramsdell. I worked as an actor/designer for three summers at the Calumet and I was offered work two summers at the Tibbets – I didn’t accept it because I’d already agreed to go to the Calumet Theater, but I still had a kind of tenuous connection there,” he explained.

The book is available from Michigan State University Press through its website at www.msupress.org.

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Posted by Michelle Graves

Michelle is the managing editor of the Manistee News Advocate. You can reach her at (231) 398-3106 or mgraves@pioneergroup.com.

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