Tragedy, Comedy, and Drama at the Jewel of the North

Normally, the theater is where spectators enjoy watching dramatic performances. In this story, the theater itself is the drama – the Cheboygan Opera House weathering the global pandemic of COVID.

“The board of directors and I had a plan in the books for what might need to be done if our ‘worst nightmare’ ever came to pass – having to refund all ticket sales,” stated Kathy King Johnson, executive director at the Cheboygan Opera House (COH). “We speculated about what might be big enough to shut down the theater permanently:  A war? A collapse of the banking industry? A global illness?”

On Friday, March 13th, 2020, the nightmare began when the pandemic forced the Opera House to close, following only two performances of the high school musical Annie Get Your Gun.

“As in most schools, the annual high school musical is sacrosanct, as big an event as homecoming or graduation. But the students performed beautifully,” King Johnson recalls.

She and a skeleton crew spent months refunding tickets and trying to get deposits backs from bands they’d booked. They had to look at ways to function online ― even showcasing their 53rd Annual Art Festival ― while working from home.

“That was no easy feat with a 582-seat live performance theater,” she stated. “Because we closed our dance department, lost income from new shows, and were obligated to refund tickets, we were hit triply hard. Some ticket holders donated their tickets, but it wasn’t enough.”

The self-described “Jewel of the North” survived by receiving funding through the Payroll Protection Plan, the Michigan Stages Survival Program, and the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

The COH had been poised for the best year ever in 2020. Ready for recitals, the school play, big-name performances, and an inaugural chamber concert series. They planned to announce the Secret Opera Society, set to live stream from the Met, and bring Missoula Children’s theater back with a surprise for the community.

Today, the stage is set for a beautiful reopening, and the process is familiar history now. The Opera House was able to open because of the number of people vaccinated and the resulting decline in COVID numbers. The guidelines allowed them to open eventually at a partial capacity, bringing in some income, and they returned to full capacity on June 22.

“We focused on what we could do online, from home, and outside with social distancing, with two compatible goals: fundraising and keeping the Arts Council and Opera in the public eye.  From that moment, a shift occurred.  Suddenly we had time to do things we had put off or never attempted because we were always too busy with day-to-day operations and putting on shows,” King Johnson continued.

“We began the first-ever online student art show. It’s so popular we decided to continue it forever in addition to the physical show at the library.”

With a grant from Consumer Electric, they replaced every bulb in the 30-foot proscenium arches of the opera house over the long summer. Close to 200 bulbs were replaced with energy-saving LED lights, bringing thousands of dollars in energy savings and lighting the auditorium as never before.

A new high-definition projector fills the screen with the best quality in movies and pictures after its public debut was stopped in its tracks. A nascent recording studio holds the new computer that coordinates video and audio recording.  According to King Johnson, old projectors and spotlights have been carted away, making room for a new YouTube studio.

So, for the second time in its history, the Opera House will survive having gone dark. According to the COH website, the Opera House was condemned 40 years ago, the bricks falling off the building, the chandeliers sold, the stage covered in dust, and the wings in cobwebs. Before the demolition trucks drove in, the citizens of Cheboygan saved the “Jewel of the North,” raising over $1.6 million to restore the building. They did so by coming together, working with the city, state, and federal government, united in a clear and noble cause to keep art alive in Cheboygan.

And so today, the show does go on again. The curtain drops, and the audience is on their feet, cheering at the very happy ending.


Cheboygan Opera House
403 North Huron Street
Cheboygan MI 49721
(231) 627-5432