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MINERAL POINT -- The stage is worn from the comedy team of George Burns and Gracie Allen, a presidential candidate by the name of John F. Kennedy and thousands of area children who have danced and acted on its maple slats.

Bing Crosby has played here as have performers from Big Top Chautauqua. There even have been a few weddings.

But the Mineral Point Opera House's biggest production started in May. The directors can't wait for April, when it'll be over.

That's when the finishing touches of a $2.25 million renovation are scheduled for completion and the doors will reopen on the 386-seat opera house that had its first show in 1915.

"I didn't want to lose this," said Phil Mrozinski, president of Mineral Point Opera House Inc., which leases the facility from the city for $1 a year. "It has so many stories."

Without the renovation, the opera house, 139 High St., would have been forced to close because it didn't have a fire sprinkler system. That led to the formation in 2008 of a 12-member ad hoc committee to study options, which resulted in the full-blown renovation. About 80 percent of the work in the $1.5 million first phase isn't visible and includes piping for the sprinklers and new electrical, heating and cooling systems.

Second and third phases totaling $750,000 have not begun but include renovations to the dressing room and green room area underneath the stage, new lighting and sound systems and improvements to the building's exterior. In 2003, a nearly $100,000 project to improve rest room facilities, restore the lobby area and ticket booth was completed.

To fund the first phase of this year's project, the community raised $500,000, had an anonymous $500,000 donation and received a $500,000 grant from the Janesville-based Jeffris Family Foundation. The locals need to raise another $500,000 to get an additional $250,000 grant from Jeffris to pay for the second and third phases.

"It's a tricky thing. Companies that used to give aren't giving," said Lauren Powers, who's co-leading the fundraising efforts. "Grants are much more competitive but we do have a very, very strong community that supports the arts."

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The opera house has hosted movies and live performances, including ones featuring Powers' daughter, Elise, 12, who performs with the Southwest Academy of Ballet Arts; its studios are just a few blocks away. Organizers say the restoration will help lure more live performances to the building, situated in the heart of the city's historic downtown and surrounded by art galleries, shops and restaurants.

The opera house, part of the city's municipal building, was designed by Claude and Stark, a Madison architectural firm that designed the 2,400-seat Orpheum Theatre, 216 State St., in Madison.

During its early days, the Mineral Point Opera House was known as the Mineral Point Municipal Theatre and Opera House and hosted some of the country's most well-known Vaudeville, opera, drama and musical acts.

When it opened in February 1915, the theater's 725 seats had been sold out nearly a week in advance for the production of a New York-based touring company's performance of "The Misleading Lady," according to "Encore," a book published this year and written by Brian L. Doyle that profiles 10 of the state's opera houses.

"Municipal opera houses were a civic extension of the reformist zeal of the times," Doyle wrote in the book's forward. "Progressive politicians saw opera houses - like public libraries and parks - as a necessary part of the educational, social and cultural development of a community."

Alterations in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s slashed its seating capacity and look; the restoration, designed by Strang of Madison, brings the opera house closer to its original design. It includes new, cushioned wood seats, carpeting and paint color schemes reflective of the era. The ornate plaster has been repaired and in some cases returned to the theater where it had been removed during one of the "total hack jobs," said Mrozinski, a Chicago transplant and commercial photographer.

Amazingly, Conrad Schmitt Studios of New Berlin, the same company that painted and plastered the facility more than 90 years ago, was the low bidder for that aspect of the renovation project.

Historic photographs and a watercolor rendering of the facility painted in 1913 were used to help determine colors and the additions of plaster work.

"We're trying to stay as accurate as possible," Mrozinski said. "It's keeping the feel of an old theater that's been knocked around and been around."

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