No, the Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe wasn't on fire. The flames outside its West Broadway entrance were a celebration, as its 35-year-old mortgage was lit on fire, its ashes crumbled to the bottom of a brass spittoon, as society members applauded.
Mauch Chunk Historical Society President Steve Hlavka, and former president and current historian Jack Sterling, burned the mortgage at a ceremony in front of the opera house on Sunday, July 17 at 3 p.m.
The MCHS had two mortgages of approximately $50,000 each on two adjacent buildings the opera house and the Marion Hose Company.
"Within the last couple of months, we sold the Marion Hose Company building to Andrew Roberts, who has an audio business that will work very well with our concerts," Sterling said.
The proceeds of the sale were used to retire both mortgages, held since 1974 with the Jim Thorpe National Bank.
"It's a new start," Hlavka said. "It gets these mortgages off our back and gives us a chance to do what we were supposed to do, be a historical society. We have never really been a true historical society."
"We got sidetracked with community theater," noted Sterling. "Although, there's usually people with historical interests on the board."
Besides selling the Marion Hose Company and burning the mortgages for it and the opera house, the MCHS is negotiating a long-term lease on the opera house to the Jtams Production company.
"As the treasurer for a number of years, we recognized that the mortgage was a huge financial burden on the historical society," said Bob Shuler. "We tried to sell the Marion previously, and more recently, we leased it with the hopes of a sale. Now it's been sold. The historical society is out of debt."
The Addison Hutton-designed Mauch Chunk Opera House began life in 1881 as an open-air farmer's market on the first floor and on the evening of Feb. 4, 1882 inaugurated its second story concert hall.
The opera house became a stop on the Vaudeville Circuit, featuring performers like Al Jolson and John Philip Sousa.
From 1927 to 1959, the building was operated by the Comerford amusement chain, who during the next three decades ran it as the Capitol Theater movie house. In 1960, the building was purchased by the Berkeley Bags Company and used as a warehouse.
In 1974, the Mauch Chunk Opera House was taken over by the Mauch Chunk Historical Society.
"We took out the mortgage at that time," Sterling said.
After years of neglect, the MCHS undertook a major restoration project installing a new sound booth, updating and replacing the electrical system, lighting, seating, carpeting, roof, and most recently, an exterior paint job.
"We had the building for about 30 years but the board didn't know what to do with it for years until Jtams Productions Dan Hugos, Vince DeGiosio, and Christie McGorry DeGiosio came forward," Sterling said. "They had the idea of fixing it up and putting on concerts. Having greater use of the building helped get us back on our feet."
Today, the opera house is recognized as an excellent venue for live music entertainment and the performing arts. The Mauch Chunk Historical Opera House is operated by the Mauch Chunk Historical Society, a volunteer nonprofit organization.