The show goes on at century-old Clifton Opera House
By Sarah Sidlow
Perched between Cedarville, Springfield and Yellow Springs, the village of Clifton is home to 152 people on a little more than 120 acres. In the center of town sits the Clifton Opera House: 120 years old and in need of a helping hand.
The unassuming brick structure was built in the early 1890s as a home for minstrel and medicine shows. In the 1950s, square dances rattled its wooden floors, as did after-school events put on by students from Clifton Union School just across the street.
Children like Lois Bailey celebrated their graduation from grade 9 on the beveled V-shaped stage in the auditorium. Bailey, now 84, lives behind the opera house in the home her grandmother raised her in. She worked in the opera house for 22 years, collecting admission.
“It’s got a lot of memories for me,” she said. “I enjoyed every bit of it. I live right behind it so I get to see it every day.”
It was Bailey’s brother, Howard Printz, who kick-started the efforts to renovate the opera house in the mid-1980s.
“Well, Howard, my brother, just liked the old building,” Bailey said. “And when it started to fall down, he went down and was picking up bricks off the side of the building.”
A man on the sidewalk stopped to watch the 70-year-old Printz, and asked him what he was doing.
“Trying to save the opera house,” Printz replied.
“How do you think you’re going to do that?” asked the man.
“Well, by having pot lucks and yard sales.”
“So the man gave Howard a dollar,” Bailey said. “He said, ‘Here, I’ll give you a dollar to start it with.’ And I wish I still had that dollar, because I’d have it framed.”
Soon, an historical society was developed, which leased the building for $1 a year. Perhaps it was into those coffers that Printz’s first dollar went.
The building is a patchwork of history and charitable donations. The balcony still has the original seats, complete with racks underneath for gentlemen’s hats. Acoustically, it’s the best place to sit.
In the center, there’s a chandelier that was donated by a Dayton man.
“He said there was only one reason,” Bailey said. “We had to use it, and not just put it in the corner.”
So, with a four-man pulley system consisting of a man in the attic, Bailey’s brother on a ladder topped with telephone books, her husband on the floor with a rope around his waist and Bailey holding on tight, the chandelier attained its place in the center of the old ceiling.
Behind the stage is a mural, which was painted by resident Sharon Benedict over three years during the off months around Christmas. Over time, the booking grew, and the small opera house in the center of town was hosting shows year-round.
But it wouldn’t last. Members of the historical society were aging and struggled to recruit. An effort to be included in the National Register of Historic Places was denied. A state law forced out the local women who sold homemade pies at the concession stand, to be replaced by prepackaged chips, candy and sodas.
And for the building that had seen everything from blackface to basketball, the only way to keep the lights on was to keep the music going.
“The building needed maintenance and utility bills paid, so we needed to continue programming,” said Village Treasurer Sue Chasnov. “This was a viable thing going on, and we felt we needed to continue it.”
There’s an ever-changing laundry list of ailments to be addressed, from the insulation in the attic to the timbers in the dirt foundation. But it’s a labor Brian Ehlers, the new manager, tackles with love.
“I don’t want to see this place waste away to nothing,” said Ehlers, who applies his narrow janitorial expertise to changing filters and light bulbs and tightening the seat bolts.
Otherwise, the help comes in the form of limited corporate donations, and patrons who help Ehlers manage the margins by telling him to “keep the change.”
But as long as the list of concerns may be, there’s a longer list of musicians anxious to play in this storied space.
“I have a sheet with 78 bands that want to perform there,” Ehlers said. “We could be open five days a week, we just wouldn’t have people in there.”
Notable performances on Ehlers’ list include an American Red Cross benefit by singer-songwriter Tim Gebard & The Hit Men (Oct. 19), gospel/bluegrass quartet Evan Lanier & The Bluegrass Express (Oct. 25), pianist Scott Oglesbee (Nov. 1) and John Mullins and the Radio Ramblers (Nov. 29), an up-and-coming bluegrass success, coming off of its second Grand Ole Opry performance.
The new manager faces a generational clash between the regular patrons, an average age of 70 with a taste for Tommy Dorsey and big band brass, and the youth market.
“You can’t have people with amps and drums, because you’d run the older crowd out,” he said. “[But] we need spearheads to get younger people in there to keep the place going. I could have a matinee or do something where we warn people, ‘If you’re too old to come in, don’t come.’”
Ehlers, a village music teacher who also teaches a bluegrass course at Sinclair Community College, brings his own ensembles to play in the opera house. He’s also begun enforcing a careful screening process for new musicians in the hopes of freshening the face of the historic venue.
“If we start getting the reputation of having crappy music, no one’s going to come,” he said. “And you never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
The Clifton Opera House is located at 5 S. Clay Street in Clifton. Admission is an optional $7 donation. For information about upcoming shows, please visit villageofclifton.com.