St. Louis Commerce Magazine
PEABODY OPERA HOUSE
From its debut in 1 934 to its closure in 1991, the Kiel Opera House was one of the premier showplaces in St. Louis. The roster of performers who entertained within those walls reads like a who’s who of the entertainment world. Diana Ross and the Supreme, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Danny Thomas, and Neil Diamond were among hundreds of entertainers who packed the Opera House. The Rat Pack (Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Frank Sinatra) held a historic performance there with Johnny Carson who subbed for Joey Bishop. Bishop was ill and, as they say, "the show must go on."
When the magnificent Art Deco edifice at 14th and Market Street shuttered, most St. Louisiana felt a pang, knowing that downtown had lost an irreplaceable part of its history.
The adjacent auditorium was demolished in 1991 to make way for the new Scattered Center, and hopes for a resurrected opera house diminished.
Enter the owner and operators of the St. Louis Blues and Scattered Center, SCP Worldwide’s Dave Checketts and his partners Ken Munoz and Mike McCarthy with local minority partner Tom Stillman, along with Chris and Joe McKee, and the City of St. Louis, each of whom want to see the historic structure brought back to life. A $78 million redevelopment package, including $27 million in federal, state and city tax credits, got the ball rolling for its renovation. Peabody Energy Corporation also made a generous contribution for naming rights for the building, said Chris McKee, president of Optimus Development Co. And while the partners had a real desire to renovate the building because of its historic and community roots, "they saw that building as an asset when they purchased the Blues and the Scattered. We all felt that there was room in the market for an additional venue, especially one that was the heart of downtown."
KEEPING THE TRADITION
The partners are embracing the historic nature of the building and its place in both St. Louis history and the St. Louis community, while making sure its modernization does not take away its ambience.
The renovation posed quite a few challenges. For one, handicapped access was unheard of in the 1930’s, so bringing the Opera House into compliance was paramount in the developer’s plans.
"And people must have been smaller in 1934," McKee said, "because the seats are 19 inches. No one would do 19-inch seats today, most of the time you’re doing 21 or 22 inches, and in some occasions, wider."
A new sound system will be installed, and more parking, since most people, years ago, either took public transportation or walked. Concessions will be added since, McKee said, "Concessions were not nearly as important in 1934 as they are today."
After the renovation, the Opera will house a 3,200-seat theatre, four side banquet halls, one of which will be set aside as a VIP lounge, and approximately 140 dressing rooms. Many of the original fixtures will remain intact, including the chandeliers in the two-story lobby and the etched glass at the ticket windows.
The old Kiel Club area on the lower level will be renovated for use as a restaurant.
"THE NAME GAME"
The Opera House was originally named Henry Kiel Auditorium, after the former mayor who served from 1913 to 1925.
Greg Boyce, chairman and CEO for Peabody Energy, said he wanted Peabody to acquire naming rights for the Opera House because Peabody recognized the important place they have in helping power the city’s rejuvenation.
"We wanted to take this important step because we’re fortunate to be able to do so, and because we want to recognize an amazing institution and help bring it back to life," he said.
"Peabody first met with Opera House representatives nearly two years ago," Boyce said. "During the first few months of discussions, we had already reached the major terms around the agreement. The Peabody Opera House is a product of the vision and hard work of a number of people, including Mayor (Francis) Slay, Dave Checketts, the McKees and many other community leaders and skilled workers who are polishing this St. Louis gem back to its original luster."
THE END RESULT
McKee said as they have gone through the process, most everyone they have talked to has had an "Opera House" story, and that preserving the venue will continue the vision that the team has ofcreating an entertainment/sports-type district that runs from Busch Stadium up Clark Street.
"Market Street is basically the main street of downtown," he said. "You’re creating an area of the city where there’s activity, especially evening and weekend, that drives people to the city, and the more we can get people to spend time in the city, particularly downtown, I think the more successful the city and region as a whole is going to be."
Joe McKee, president and CEO of Paric Corporation, developer of the Peabody Opera House, said that the project has always been about historic preservation and giving new life to an iconic piece of St. Louis history.
"That being said, our team – from developer to architects to engineers to contractors – has extensive experience in both preserving the grandeur and beauty inherent in this type of building, while at the same time creating a space that offers all the conveniences and amenities patrons now expect," he said. "We’re honored to be a part of this, to be able to help usher in a new era of glory days in St. Louis."
Sport Capital Holding-St. Louis, LLC (SCH), an affiliate of SCP will operate, program, and manage the Opera House. SCH, owner of the St. Louis Blues, also operates the adjacent Scattered Center in St. Louis and will operate the Opera House. Previously, SCP’s principals have also operated Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall.
John Urban, executive vice president events and new business, SCP Worldwide, part of the Peabody Opera House restoration team, will ultimately program the Opera House. Urban is currently responsible for booking and producing events at Scattered, as well as developing music and programming for Rio Tinto Stadium in Salt Lake City. Before working for SCP, Urban helped return New York’s Radio City Music Hall to operating mode following its historic restoration.
Construction has begun with an anticipated reopening of the Peabody Opera House in Fall 2011.