Opera house, hidden for years, plays a dramatic role

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 15, 2011 - 9:37 PM
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Colleen Donley had a one-year life expectancy when her cancer was diagnosed in 2002. With her brother she renovated the old opera house in Staples, Minn. Nine years later, they hope to sell it.

In 2002 an epiphany of sorts hit Colleen Donley like a truck. Literally.

She had just had gotten a diagnosis of cancer and been told she had one year to live. Donley was so absorbed with the news, she stepped off the curb and was run down and dragged 10 feet.

As Donley recovered from the accident and underwent chemotherapy, her twin brother, Chris Frost, began looking for a dream that might keep her alive longer -- an eccentric house to refurbish, maybe.

He stumbled upon a large building on the highway in Staples, Minn., the former Batcher's clothing store. Frost climbed over piled junk to get to the second floor. When he flipped on the lights, he couldn't believe what he was seeing: a massive opera hall that had gone virtually untouched for more than 60 years.

The walls, though water-stained, were painted in elaborate scrolls. Original hand-painted backdrops hung above a large stage. There were dramatic balconies and chandeliers and art posters from the building's heyday, when it showed famous plays and hosted musicians who had come by train to Staples, then considered "the travelers' rest."

Together, Donley and Frost began cleaning up the hall in June 2003, even scrubbing the frescoes on the balcony with a toothbrush. They put in new windows and a new roof, and began rehabbing some of the bedrooms down a long hall where the train conductors slept during their breaks. They succeeded in getting the building on the National Register of Historic Places.

Donley and Frost sold antiques on the first floor of the building to help pay the rent, but before long they started booking shows in this small town of about 3,000. One of the first was comedian Louie Anderson, who had stopped in to look at antiques. They took him upstairs and he was so awed by the place he said, "I want to do a show here."

For some events, they had as many as 300 people lined up, said Donley. "It was really magical."

Over the years, the brother and sister have put on 62 shows, including performances by Mickey Rooney and the blues band Lamont Cranston.

I was alerted to this story by Madeline Douglas, who is active in historic preservation. She knew I grew up in Staples, but she didn't know I lived two blocks from the opera house and, like many in town, didn't know it existed.

"I don't know which is more extraordinary, the opera house or the twin sister and brother who took on a building which, like themselves, needed a second chance of a new life," said Douglas.

It was a wonderful ride while it lasted, said Donley. Unfortunately, the economy took a bad turn and business trailed off. Donley has had a relapse of her cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy again, so she is often too tired to work. It's time to let go of the dream, she said. There is an estate sale starting this Thursday, and the building will be auctioned off in September. (www.startribune.com/a607)

"People say we did this wrong, or we did that wrong," said Donley. "But they didn't understand. We were on a different planet. It has been so healing. It has given us hope."

One questionable decision was Donley's refusal to get a liquor license, which probably dissuaded many from renting the site for special occasions. "I didn't want the last image of this building to be uncle Joe puking over the balcony," she quipped.

Donley was having a particularly good day last week when she showed Douglas and me around the magnificent hall. She pointed to some old movie projectors and mentioned that the room had been used to show the first "talkies," and occasionally the ballroom was used for roller-skating.

It suddenly struck me: My own dad had been the projectionist at the theater, and he met my mother roller-skating. This was the exact room where my parents met and my dad had his first job. I guess it was even more special, to me at least, than I had first imagined.

Donley hopes someone who appreciates the history will buy the building. She thinks it would make a great community center, but it could also be converted into apartments or condos.

Whatever happens to the old Batcher Building, Donley credits it with keeping her alive this long. She likes to quote William James in describing her philosophy of the past few years: "The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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