MERIDIAN, MS (WLBT) - It's called the Riley Center now. The first time I saw it, it was the Grand Opera House, and it wasn't all that grand. Well, it was, but it really needed what it has gotten in the last few years.
Decades of lawsuits over the use of the opera house building after it closed its doors in 1927 had left 65 years of deterioration in the once grand lady. It looked as if it could have been haunted. But as I recall, the story we ended up doing on Halloween 1992 had little to do with ghosts and more to do about the dream the people of Meridian had of restoring their old theatre and bringing it back to life.
It seemed almost a fantasy to me. There was no question of the worthiness of the project. I had never seen a place so frozen in time. But I was also thinking that it was just about impossible to bring it back. Well, the story about the building today is better than any ghost story from 17 years ago.
This is the story of a resurrection. Meridian did rally around the Grand Opera House. The Riley Foundation of Meridian got things started with a $10 million grant, stipulating that the finished auditorium and adjoining department store, also being restored and refitted as a conference center, be owned and operated by Mississippi State University. All totaled, $25 million went into the restoration work.
And the end product looks like one of those old hand-colored post cards from the turn of the 20th century, only it's real and sitting there today, right in the middle of downtown Meridian.
And this is just the beginning. Other restoration projects inspired by the old opera house are either underway or are in the planning...or dreaming stage. But no one is saying anything about any of it being impossible anymore.
The Riley Center is nearing the end of its 2008-2009 season of performances, right now. The Five Browns, pianist siblings, were rehearsing the day we slipped in and got shots of the new, old theatre. From September through May the brightest of the stars and the best of the best treat audiences in the restored auditorium.
And I dare say that the performers get a treat, too: the first time they walk out on that stage and look into the seats and back a hundred years in time. It's another treasure, not only for Meridian, but for all of Mississippi.
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