October 21, 2021

Marathon opera house and library looks to renovate

Landmark needs $1M in repairs

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

The former opera house, above Peck Memorial Library, is used primarily for the library’s book fairs.

One of Connie White’s most vivid memories of the old opera house above Peck Memorial Library was seeing “The Wizard of Oz” as a 5-year-old in 1950.

“When I saw the witch, I got out of my chair and started running up the center aisle,” she said. “I did not want to stay. My sister brought me back and I had to watch the movie in a crouched position.”

The opera house and library needs close to $1 million in renovations, White said. The library, though, has received $50,000 through its capital-based campaign, with $5,000 coming from a donor a few years ago, but much needs to be done to restore the opera house to its original condition.

“I think if it was run properly and renovated properly to be a multifunctional room, it could perhaps be a very strong contributor to what is underneath it, which is the library,” she said.

Pieces of the opera house’s long history recently turned up for White.

White, vice president for the library’s board of trustees and president of the Marathon Area Historical Society, found a box of glass slides in a storage area of the library around the beginning of December that contained movie posters from the silent era that would be projected onto a screen, she said.

One of the slides included a preview for “The Sheik” starring Rudolph Valentino, a “heartthrob of the ‘roaring 20s,’” White said.

She took some slides to Jerry Wilcox, owner of River Bend Antiques in Marathon, who told her they were known as magic lanterns in that era. She has since cleaned them and stored them in her house until recently returning them to the library, where she hopes they’ll be displayed.

“Really, this is something that is such a part of the history of the building,” she said. “It’s a pleasurable thing to know there’s a little something left.”

The library and opera house opened in 1895 after Mersena Peck left $20,000 in her will for the people of Marathon to build a library, White said. Originally, half of the building was a bank.

Over the years, the opera house added movies when they came along. Social events, like high school graduations and formal dinners, were held there, White said.

The opera house stopped hosting performances and films following the rise of television in the 1950s.

Today, the opera house is used twice a year to host book fairs at the library.

“Architects have said the stage is not safe for performances and people being on them,” library director Mary Frank said. “Renovations would be needed if it were to be used for theater again.”

The building needs renovations as well, Frank said. Bricks on the western side of the building need replacing due to their age and poor quality.

Small renovations have been done over the years and donations have been made, but no large plans have been set yet, Frank said.

“I’d like to see it go back to a space for multipurpose things, not just for one thing,” said Pat Canfield, the former president of the library’s board of trustees.

Canfield’s memories of the opera house and the building go back to when she was 9 years old — 60 years ago — when she first started coming to the building.

She would have Girl Scouts meetings in the opera house, where she recalled making jewelry.

“It was kind of spooky because being a little kid, it was a big space. Back then, you didn’t go many places without your parents,”she said.

The opera house hasn’t been used for performances since she was a Girl Scout, she said.

She, too, has found remnants of the past with old inscriptions from actors written on the walls behind the stage.

“It’s valuable and we got to fix and keep the building intact,” Canfield said.