Opera house reopens with visit from great-great-granddaughter of founder
MOUNT VERNON — A very special and unexpected few moments happened during Thursday night’s first show at the Woodward Opera House since 1917. The audience was seated and about to hear the “Carolina Heroes” duo of David Holt and Josh Goforth bring western Carolina Appalachian mountain music to life.
Danny Gum, managing director of the Knox Partnership for Arts and Culture, introduced the special guest by saying he had heard someone in tears upon a recent visit to the historical theater and wanted to see why. There he met Susan Woodward Peck, the great-great-granddaughter of Dr. Ebenezer Woodward, who built his original opera house in 1851.
As a youth at 17 and then five years later, Peck had traipsed through the historic theater and its third floor in the dark, flashlight in hand, braving the cobwebs, mouse droppings and old furniture to see what the opera house had left with its potential — if anything.
“And I have pictures of what it looked like,” she said.
Gum ensured that Peck would be on hand for Thursday’s re-opening. She was in tears once again, this time on stage, as Gum presented her with a bouquet of flowers.
“This is totally awesome,” she told the audience, after flying in for the occasion from Richmond, Virginia. She wanted to see the old chandelier, happy to know it still existed as a reminder of Woodward’s heyday.
“My great-great grandfather would be awed at all that has been done to restore this theater,” she said. “And I thank you all so much.”
“It’s been a long, long time since we’ve had a gated performance of this sort where you sell tickets and so on,” Pat Crow, the theater’s project manager, said before the show. “I mean, we’re excited. It’s a special moment for us.”
The effort to restore the four-story building goes back to the 1970s, Crow said. Crow, his wife Sandy, and other key members of the Woodward Development Corp., a non-profit organization, began restoration plans in earnest once the corporation formed in 1997. Two buildings that were required to make the project happen were purchased several years later.
“So it’s been an exciting trip, it’s been a long journey,” Crow offered. “A lot of people who started the project with us aren’t here anymore. Some have passed away. But it has been an exciting journey. This is America’s oldest authentic theater in the United States, and by date, it’s the second oldest theater in the United States.”
The Woodward Opera House as renovated is remarkably spacious for a theater with an official seating capacity of 492, Crow noted. It includes a horseshoe-shaped balcony. During its prime years in the 1880s and 1890s, the theater was said to hold as many as 700 people for some performances.
In 1851, the theater opened as a hall on the fourth floor with smaller shows that grew in size over the years, Crow said. Woodward was a businessman who knew that on Main Street in Mount Vernon, the key to success would be offering mercantile businesses on the street level, and a performing arts venue above.
In 1883, other buildings were acquired and the theater remodeled for placement on the third floor with an increase in size. A blackbox theater now inhabits the fourth floor and a recital hall takes up the second floor.
KPAC will be in charge of bringing talent into the Woodward Opera House, Gum said. Non-profit organizations involved in bringing the theater back to life, including KPAC, the Woodward Development Corp., and the Woodward Local Foods Initiative, have succeeded with the project by tapping into funding sources such as federal grants for theater renovation, he said.
‘The Woodward Development Corporation owns this building, but it belongs to the people of Mount Vernon,” Gum said.
The way KPAC managed to book Carolina Heroes for the Woodward’s reopening is a tale unto itself. Gum’s wife, who is The Makery owner Kimberly Weitkamp Gum, is a storytelling performer. The Gums know North Carolina native David Holt from his Appalachian music and storytelling expertise, which is showcased in places such as Joneborough, Tennessee. Holt, 72, who is an expert on the banjo and several other instruments fashioned in those Carolina mountains, has performed with legends including Tennessee Ernie Ford. In fact, Holt appeared with Ford on the popular TV show “Hee Haw” in 1984.
Holt and his Carolina Heroes song partner, 37-year old Josh Goforth, played Ford’s well-known “16 Tons” as one of their songs Thursday night. They also played songs using two unusual instruments that came from simple but effective Appalachian craftmaking — a taut string on a stick, known as a mouth bow, and a stick with bottle caps nailed to it, beat on by another stick and called a “stump fiddle.”
The way Holt and Goforth came together as “Carolina Heroes” was serendipity for Goforth. As a middle school student in North Carolina, a teacher informed him that Holt, a Grammy award-winning musician and storyteller, would be coming to perform in front of the whole school in the gymnasium. She asked him to prepare to play a song or two with Holt. Goforth was a well groomed and talented musician even at a young age, having become pianist for his church by age 5.
The two performed on stage so well together during Goforth’s middle school “audition” that when Goforth had graduated from his school years, they reunited as Holt asked him to join his band. The band toured in Switzerland, and then the two formed a duo — 18 years ago and going strong. Holt was well known to an American audience as someone who hosted a PBS show, Trains Across North America, and now hosts a new PBS show. Goforth, a skilled guitarist, fiddler and mandolin player, informed the Woodward audience how their unlikely partnership had formed.
With mountain songs influenced by musical mentors like Chet Atkins and Doc Watson, the two weave stories and film into their multi-media performances. Goforth told media before the show, “He (Holt) is like a second father to me.”
“It’s been a great partnership,” Holt said.
The two enjoyed the honor of being the first to play at the Woodward in more than a century. Holt mentioned Dan Emmett, a highly accomplished songwriter, fiddler and banjo player of the 19th century. Emmett was a Mount Vernon native of the minstrel tradition with his songs, and a popular summer music festival is named in his honor.
“It’s incredible because I’m a banjo player and Dan Emmett is the superhero of songwriting,” Holt said. “I play the old timey banjo so this is really great. There are several of these really beautifully done theaters, and to hear this is the oldest theater and hasn’t been played in since 1917, that’s great. We did a soundcheck earlier today and it sounded wonderful.” The two dined at The Alcove and lodged at The Grand during their stay.
The official Grand Opening of the Woodward Opera House will be Feb. 9 at 7 p.m. with an already nearly sold out show featuring Kathy Mattea. More shows and events are on tap through October, with tickets and details found at www.thewoodward.org.