DANVILLE — Soft notes from a piano being tuned filled the lobby of the Fischer Theatre as volunteers and contractors swarmed nearly every inch of the historic building Friday, finishing up last-minute preparations for its grand reopening tonight, which will feature a live performance by The Lettermen.
“It’s spectacular,” said Bobby Poynton of Monticello, one of the three members of the harmonic singing group, who at 7 p.m. will be the first to perform in the completely renovated historic theater in downtown Danville.
Poynton, who’s friends with the project contractor, Paul Offutt, said he’s been to the theater several times during the yearlong project.
Originally built as the Grand Opera House in 1884, then renovated and reopened in 1913 by Louis F. Fischer, the theater has been closed since 1982, with a restoration effort plodding along since then.
The ground-up restoration started around August last year when the late local philanthropist Julius W. Hegeler II, who died July 5 at the age of 91, decided to help the building owners, the nonprofit Vermilion Heritage Foundation, with some exterior work.
But once he got going, Mr. Hegeler didn’t want to stop. He financed a full restoration of the historic venue where he and his wife had their first date (front right box, mezzanine level). Hegeler also was an usher there as a teenager, the same time that actor Gene Hackman was a manager. Another notable connection: The piano in the lobby was once played by the late cabaret singer and piano player Bobby Short, a Danville native.
“We are stoked to be the first ones to open it,” said Poynton, who confirmed The Lettermen will soon get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, with a dedication being planned in 2020. “We are very excited about that. It’s just an honor to be included in that.”
Poynton said he and the other current group members, Rob Gulack and Donovan Tea, as well as the last original member, Tony Butala, who has retired, will attend that event together.
Tonight, however, they are excited to entertain the approximately 850 people who bought tickets to the Fischer’s grand reopening, which many Danville residents have been awaiting ever since the venue was closed by Kerasotes Theaters in 1982. The Vermilion Heritage Foundation struggled for years to preserve the site, originally built in 1884 as the Grand Opera House and renovated and reopened in 1913 by Louis F. Fischer.
“I think it’s going to be magical,” said Cher Pollock, a foundation board member for at least 10 years, referring to tonight’s concert. She said the harmonies and love songs of The Lettermen will be a perfect first live performance for the venue, which boasts good acoustics, mezzanine and balcony levels, loge seating, ornate plaster work and a stage that can accommodate a variety of live shows but now has the modern features, like lighting, sound and projection, to show films as well.
“With the fabulous acoustics, a live show like this is the best way to showcase this theater. They don’t build them like this anymore,” said the theater’s new executive director, Jason Rome, hired earlier this month by the foundation.
In just one year, Rome explained, the foundation has shifted its focus from preservation to restoration to a fully functional venue.
“It’s like we all just jumped in a catapult and pulled the lever,” he said.
Rome said he’s excited to book a show with an artist, like an acoustic guitarist, to take advantage of the superb sound qualities of the Fischer.
“It’s an exciting point in history for this place,” said Rome, who is full of ideas for the Fischer’s future, which starts Monday.
But this weekend, it’s all about tonight’s grand reopening, which organizers say will include ample recognition of Mr. Hegeler, the man who made it all possible.