MOUNT VERNON – On the night when America’s oldest authentic 19th-century theater still standing reopened for its first show in over a century, Susan Woodward Peck stood before an awestruck crowd and bawled at center stage.
Just moments earlier, she was introduced to the crowd by Danny Gum, managing director of the Knox Partnership for Arts & Culture. When he revealed her identity, the crowd gasped.
GALLERY: Woodward Opera House opening night
The Woodward Opera House hosted its first concert in over a century on Thursday night, as North Carolina natives David Holt and Josh Goforth performed southern folk classics with a unique array of instruments. Holt is a four-time Grammy award-winning musician and Goforth is a Grammy nominee. The Woodward's grand opening will be on Feb. 9, when bluegrass legend Kathy Mattea comes to town.
She was the great-granddaughter of Ebenezer Woodward, who built the theater in 1851.
Peck had flown in Thursday from Richmond, VA, where she currently resides. She showed up to the theater that afternoon, unannounced and unexpected; Gum told Knox Pages after the show that his staff had no idea she was coming.
“This lady walks into the ticket office today, and I was in my office and we’re selling tickets and I hear her talking, and I could tell she was crying,” Gum told the crowd before the concert, standing beside Peck, who began to tear up.
“So I was nosy and I went out to see why she was crying. And she was overcome with emotion because her great-grandfather is Ebenezer Woodward.”
Peck gladly accepted the flowers from Gum and the applause from the crowd. She proceeded to tell her story; how she first came to the theater at the age of 17, in the dark, with a flashlight; how she ran through cobwebs and mice droppings and loose construction remnants to try to get to the very room she stood in now.
At the age of 22, she would return to the theater once more.
“The one thing I wanted to see,” she said, tears rolling down her cheeks, “was the chandelier that was not there.”
Peck was devastated, her family's creation deteriorating before her eyes, but she never gave up hope. She kept tabs on the building over the years, and when she returned to the facility Thursday she brought a copy of a Mount Vernon News article dated August 3, 2002 – the last time she’d seen the place.
She and her family were in town for a reunion, the article states, and they went back to check up on the theater. It was four years into the restoration process at that point, but Peck was already eager to see the finished product.
“When the doors open to the restored 19th-century Woodward Opera House in the future, Susan (Woodward) Peck wants to be in the front of the line,” the story’s lede paragraph reads.
“‘Count me in,’ said Peck.”
16 years later, Peck got her wish.
“To be able to see what this looked like before, because I have pictures of what this looked like then, and to see what it looks like today… my great-grandfather would be totally awed at all that has been done to restore this theater,” Peck said, clutching her bouquet as she dabbed away tears. “I thank you all so much.”
On the night when America’s oldest authentic 19th-century theater still standing reopened for its first show in over a century, Gum called for assistance. It was urgent.
“We just had a cable break,” he told anyone who could hear him, as he made a beeline for the stage.
It was 5:29 p.m., almost 90 minutes before the show’s scheduled start time, and a skinny, silver wire was hanging down in front of the curtain.
After four theater volunteers came to the stage, they determined it was fixable. They lowered the curtain, re-hooked the wire, and all was well with the world once again.
But Gum could have gone without the worry. Months of planning had come down to this night, the effective ‘soft opening’ of the restored opera house.
Gum spent the final hours before showtime racing back and forth across the lobby’s maroon carpet, dishing out assignments to his 12 volunteers. Over the last several months, Gum and KPAC have been in charge of booking performing artists for the theater. They’ve since lined up an extensive spring lineup, which includes the opera house’s official grand opening on Feb. 9, when Grammy-award winning bluegrass singer Kathy Mattea comes to town.
Up until 5 or 6 p.m. Thursday, things were fairly calm. Gum had the night’s performers, folk musicians David Holt and Josh Goforth, in for soundchecks earlier that day. He and his had staff adjusted lighting levels. They also set up the rolling bar, which was stationed outside the theater’s exit.
But things ramped up as visitors began to stream through the doors. There were people to meet and questions to answer.
It was all worth it, though, Gum said. After all, Thursday night was historic.
“Man, this is exciting,” said Gum, grinning as he walked briskly in between tasks. “We’re nervous, but who wouldn’t be?”
Thursday night marked the Woodward’s first concert since 1917. The opera house closed in the mid-1920s due to the rise of motion pictures, ending its 70-year run as one of the region’s premier vaudeville theaters. In 1998, the Woodward Development Corporation took over the building and began restoring the opera house to its original aesthetic. After 20 years and $21 million in renovation efforts, the theater is once again open for business.
While Gum said Thursday night’s show was not sold out, the grand opening likely will be. KPAC has already sold two-thirds of the seats for Mattea’s performance, Gum said, which is still two weeks away.
Gum said word of the opera house’s opening has spread quickly through social media, as he’s gotten calls from people in Akron, Columbus and Toledo about show tickets.
“It’s been a long road, but it’s here,” said Gum, buzzing with anticipation. “We just want people to come in and have the best time possible.”
On the night when America’s oldest authentic 19th century theater still standing reopened for its first show in over a century, two men from Asheville, NC sang to the crowd and the crowd sang back.
They were Holt and Goforth, the first musical guests to grace the Woodward’s newly renovated stage, and they were there to take the crowd on a journey.
The two have performed together for 18 years, using a unique array of instruments – which include a banjo, guitar, fiddle, washboard, mouth bow, paper bag and stumpf fiddle – to perform classic southern folk hits. They sang songs they’d learned from friends and family, and they explained the story behind each song before doing so.
When Holt and Goforth sang songs such as ‘Cotton-Eyed Joe,’ they prompted the audience to sing, clap and stomp along with them. It was an intimate, two-way experience; Holt, the four-time Grammy award-winning musician, and Goforth, the Grammy nominee, communicated with the audience during each tune.
Standing backstage less than an hour before showtime, neither Holt nor Goforth seemed nervous about the idea of making history at the newly renovated opera house. Instead, they felt humbled.
“There are several of these really beautifully done theaters, and to hear that this is the oldest that’s opening now and hadn’t been played in since 1917, yeah, that’s great,” Holt said. “It’s exciting for us.”
For both Holt and Goforth, this week was their first time visiting Mount Vernon. They arrived on Wednesday and stayed at the Grand Hotel overnight. On Thursday, they ate breakfast at North Main Café and had dinner before their show at The Alcove. Holt had the trout almondine; Goforth had the sea scallops.
The two don’t do as many out-of-state concerts as they used to, Goforth said, but this time they made an exception. Both artists know Gum and his wife, Kim, who is also a professional storyteller. When Gum asked if they’d be willing to make the trip to open up the historic opera house, they agreed without hesitation.
The night was particularly neat for Holt, who grew up idolizing Knox County native and banjo pioneer Dan Emmett. He called Emmett “the Superman of songwriting” and said it was an honor to play in his hometown.
Both Holt and Goforth spoke highly of the renovated Woodward, as they were impressed by the state-of-the-art sound system and roomy feel. Holt told the audience midway through the performance that it felt like he was “playing on the inside of a guitar, with all this beautiful wood around.”
On the stage, Holt and Goforth’s chemistry was obvious. Holt, 72, first met Goforth, 37, when he was in middle school; Holt was performing at an assembly at Goforth’s school and the youngster asked to perform a tune alongside him. Impressed by Goforth’s confidence and talent (he began playing piano at the age of 4 and became his church’s pianist at the age of 5), Holt kept in touch with him over the years.
When Holt was getting ready to go on a Switzerland tour after Goforth had graduated high school, he called him up and asked if he wanted to tag along.
“We’ve been performing together ever since,” Goforth said with a smile.
Goforth said Holt has served as a father figure to him over the years. Goforth’s father recently lost his eight-year battle with Parkinson’s disease, and Holt has been there to comfort him every step of the way.
“He’s like a second father to me,” Goforth said. “He’s been very close.”
That bond was ever-present on Thursday night, when the two played off each other during duets. Holt, with his smooth, deep, storytelling voice, and Goforth, with his summertime North Carolina drawl, swept Knox County off its feet.
And in Goforth’s eyes, Knox County returned the favor.
“Unbelievable,” Goforth said of the Woodward. “I mean, you guys are so lucky to have this here. You’re very fortunate because there’s not many communities or towns that have a theater like this.”
On the night when America’s oldest authentic 19th century theater still standing reopened for its first show in over a century, Tony and Mike Smith sat five rows from the back and stared at the golden chandelier in awe.
They weren’t alone.
As the theater began to fill on Thursday night, those in attendance took time to soak it all in. They gazed at the refurbished walls, the balcony and the stage – all of which hearkened back to the opera house’s century-old glory days. They snapped pictures of the decor and took selfies in their seats.
Tony and Mike are cousins, and at least in Tony’s case, Thursday night was simply a stroke of luck.
He was listening to WMVO two Fridays ago, as he usually does in the morning, when show host Tyler Mathias told listeners he would be giving away free tickets to the opening night show. The eighth caller would win the tickets, Tony recalled, and he had to have them.
So he called.
“You’re my second caller,” Mathias said on the other line.
Then he called again.
“You’re the fifth caller,” Mathias responded.
Third time’s a charm, Tony thought.
“I go, ‘Hey, Tyler, this is Tony...’” Tony remembers. “And he goes, ‘You’re my winner!’”
It was a dream come true for Tony, a lifelong Mount Vernon resident, who had heard of the Woodward’s lore but never seen it in person. The same goes for Mike, who grew up hearing similar stories.
Tony and Mike’s fathers were brothers, and they grew up alongside six other siblings in Mount Vernon in the 1930s. Their fathers would tell them stories about their youth, which included sneaking into the Woodward the only way they could: through the fire escape.
“Of course, they didn’t have the money to be able to get in,” Mike recalled. “So one of them would sneak up the back fire escape, get in through the roof entrance. He’d unlock one of the other fire escape doors and the rest of the kids would come in.
“They’d make their way in and they’d crawl under the seats that were here until they found an empty seat and they sat down.”
The two burst out in laughter as they retold the story. But for their family, it’s an important one to keep telling; after all, all but one of the five brothers in their fathers’ family have since passed.
On Thursday, the two marveled at what the Woodward Development Corporation has done with the facility. Mike had last visited the theater during the 1996 Dan Emmett Festival, when it was announced that the restoration process would begin.
“The (ceiling) medallion was there but it was in pieces, a lot of it had already broke off and fell,” Mike recalled. “This floor, it was down to just bare wood here.”
Now they sat in comfortable red chairs as they talked about what this could do for Mount Vernon and Knox County. Both believe the opera house will draw visitors to the area – and with enough attention, bigger names could soon fill the stage.
“Look at the history of this,” Tony quipped. “The potential, you know… this is amazing for Mount Vernon and Knox County.”
As exciting as the night was for Tony and Mike, however, it was also sentimental. Tony lost his father last June, while Mike lost his years earlier. They wished their fathers could have been with them on Thursday, to see what had become of their old stomping grounds.
“My dad was 81, and if he would have been able (to go), I would have been able to bring him,” Tony said. “He would have probably loved to see this.”
Midway through their first song of the night, Holt and Goforth relayed the chorus with the audience.
“Hey, hey,” the two would sing.
“Black-eyed Susan,” the crowd chimed back.
Just minutes into the show, Tony and Mike were already fully engaged. Tony sang along and tapped his right foot, bobbing to the beat.
He let out a smile, as if he knew.
Somewhere, looking down from up high, his father was bobbing along with him.