Dark for nearly a century, the Napa Valley Opera House sprang to life Thursday night with the promise of greasepaint and the roar of applause.
Offering financial backers and longtime supporters a preview of what first nighters will see tonight, Rita Moreno, Oscar- and Tony Award-winning star of stage and screen, opened the 500-seat upstairs auditorium with a dazzling 70-minute show that touched on a career that stretches from Sunset Boulevard to Tin Pan Alley.
Capping a restoration effort nearly two decades in the making, the Margrit Biever Mondavi Theatre was officially opened to a crowd that included fundraisers, contractors, city and county leaders, wine country movers and shakers — who paid as much as $750 to $2,500 a couple — as well as the families of visionaries who saved the Grand Old Lady of Main Street from the wrecking ball.
Thursday night's grand opening celebration saw Main Street in front of the Opera House closed to traffic so those attending the black tie gala could take part in a red carpet reception in the shadow of the restored entertainment venue.
Although clouds thickened and a few drops of rain fell during an alfresco three-course meal prepared by wine country caterer Elaine Bell, those attending the gala were all smiles at the prospect of the Napa Valley Opera House opening its once prominent second story auditorium for a live performance.
When the Italiante Napa Opera House opened in 1880, Napa had a population of 5,000, noted Michael Savage, the facility's present-day executive director. "It could accommodate one-fourth of them, sitting on hard wooden benches," he pointed out.
Those who attended the first opening night crowded beneath a gas lamp chandelier to watch a performance of a brand new show that had just premiered in London, Gilbert and Sullivan's "H.M.S. Pinafore."
Come Saturday night, a Los Angeles-based theater company will bring its staging of the Gilbert and Sullivan work here for a week-long run.
Once welcoming acts as diverse as Luisa Tetrazzini and John Philip Sousa, the second story theater will offer in months to come such headliners as Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, the Paul Taylor Dance Troupe, the Vienna Choir Boys and the two-generational jazz team of Bucky and John Pizzarelli.
Saved from demolition
Savage pointed out during Thursday's dinner that the Napa Valley Opera House suffered substantial damage during the 1906 earthquake and "fell into disuse. It closed in 1914, just 34 years after it had opened."
In 1973, when demolition threatened, Napa residents succeeded in placing the rare second story Opera House on the National Register of Historic Places.
Under the leadership of preservationists and community leaders like John Whitridge, Veronica diRosa and Tom Thornley, funds were raised to purchase the site.
The number of people interested in restoring "The Grand Old Lady" grew, noted Moira Johnston Block, and with persistence and $14 million — including a $2 million matching grant from vintner Robert Mondavi — "she was brought back to life. This is a moment in history, a night to remember, the culmination of a 19-year melodrama…"
Charles Stahl, president of the Napa Valley Opera House board of trustees, and William Kieschnick, board chairman, talked about how the fundraising effort grew as many in the community saw that "this diamond in the rough…could once again become a gathering place for Napa Valley."
Margrit Biever Mondavi said the restoration effort is indeed "a dream come true…and it's been a long time coming. When I first saw it it was a rat-infested site. It took a lot of imagination and dreaming to think that this (restoration) could be possible. I thank my husband for allowing me to have my name on the theater. And I wish there's a full house every night."
A new direction
When the Napa Valley Opera House's board of trustees committed to restoring the facility's facade in 1995, "it gave this town a direction it hadn't had," noted gala attendee Donna Morgan, of Angwin.
"It set a theme, giving a visual image that the rest of the town could rally around. It provided a visual direction that could be followed in downtown Napa."
"This is big excitement for us," said John Kongsgaard, who, with his wife, Maggie, book talent for and sell subscriptions to the Chamber Music in Napa Valley series.
"We get to move the chamber music series to this jewel box of a concert hall. We are the envy of our European counterparts. And there are performers all over Europe looking forward to making their debuts here. We're just one of many arts organizations that will benefit from being able to schedule our performances here."
Fun for first nighters
All dolled up in glittery red sheath, matching jewelry, beaded choker and slingbacks, Moreno served up a diverse musical program that included a Spanish version of the classic, "Brazil," complete with jungle-sounding scatting, and a nonpareil reading of "I Found a Million Dollar Baby (at the 5-&-10-Cent Store)."
"I'm 71 and proud of it," the svelte, hip-swiveling chanteuse cooed at the start of Thursday night's performance.
"I love lust, even though it's dangerous. Lust has all kinds of implications — yet it gives you something to think about when you're vacuuming."
A rousing rendition of Mama Rose's "Some People" from "Gypsy" gave way to a utterly delightful rap salute to the Big Apple, complete with really "phat" dance moves.
A first class trio — pianist Lee Musiker, bassist Jon Burr and drummer Ted Sommer, who was with Ol' Blue Eyes for 25 years — provided exceptional backup for this marvelous entertainer.
While Moreno's inaugural performance is choice, in no way did it eclipse the evening's star, the Grand Old Lady of Main Street, who's once again back in business on a very important piece of downtown real estate.