Raising the Curtain
After a decades-long restoration process, The Metropolitan Theatre in downtown Morgantown is once again a destination on High Street.
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Picture this: It’s 1924 on High Street in downtown Morgantown. Shop lights are twinkling. Aromas from restaurants fill the air. Crowds are bustling. And the marquee at the brand new vaudeville house, The Metropolitan Theatre, boasts its grand opening featuring Alice in Toyland, Frank VanHouven, Marvin’s Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, the Lamys: A Vaudeville Surprise, and more—a lineup that sets the stage for a golden age of entertainment.
As patrons enter the theater in droves, they take in the marble As patrons enter the theater in droves, they take in the marble entryway furnished with wicker settees inviting people to sit and socialize before the show. The women excuse themselves to the ladies’ lounge as the gentlemen gather in the smoking room. In the auditorium adorned in shades of French gray, old rose, and gold, silk panels line the walls and gold leafing glows in the soft light of the wall sconces and Czechoslovakian crystal chandeliers. The stage is framed in velvet draperies, guests settle into their upholstered seats, and patrons in the balcony take in the panoramic views of the stage and high-quality details and finishes. In the building’s lower level, camaraderie abounds at The Metropolitan Billiard Parlor.
Now, picture this: It’s 1987. The Metropolitan Theatre has thrived for decades as “West Virginia’s most beautiful playhouse.” From vaudeville to silent movies to Hollywood blockbusters, The Met has been the anchor of High Street. But as happens frequently across America, the building has suffered from utter neglect. After a flash fire backstage in 1930, the lavish décor was never restored to its full glory. By the late ’80s, the marquee is dark and sags dramatically above the front doors. The windows are dark, and inside, huge chunks of plaster have fallen from the walls after years of rainwater leaked through the roof. Piles of abandoned junk collect dust alongside dysfunctional utilities. The doors are locked. The grand Metropolitan Theatre—the heart of downtown Morgantown—is closed.
But at last, the lights at The Met are back on. With passion and memories of The Met’s glory days driving them, a small group of volunteer community members gathered in 1990 in an effort to bring The Met back from its state of “miserable” and “despicable” disrepair. “When I was a student at West Virginia University (WVU),” says Vivien Woofter, president of The Metropolitan Theatre Foundation, “going to the theater was what students did—everyone went to the movies, and The Met was our favorite. We would buy our tickets right out on the sidewalk under the marquee, and we loved it.” It was the place to go for date nights or to catch the biggest show in town. Vickie Powell, the foundation’s grant writer, can remember going to The Met to see The Beatles’ first hit movie, A Hard Day’s Night, and Barbara Rasmussen, historic preservationist and Foundation board member, recalls sitting in the theater’s auditorium seats as a WVU student for her freshman survey humanities class in the ’60s.
U.S. Congressman Alan Mollohan played an integral part in helping the original Metropolitan Theatre Preservation Foundation, founded by Karl Yagle and Barton Loar, acquire funding to purchase the building in 1990 and start what would become a decades-long restoration project and, to many, a labor of love. “The first time I walked in the main entrance, after the plaster restorations had been completed,” Barbara remembers, “as Vivien would say, I was gobsmacked! It brought tears to my eyes.”