TRAVERSE CITY — It’s winter picnic time again at the City Opera House — this time to raise money for the historic performing arts center itself.
The 121-year-old brick entertainment hall needs to fill a $250,000 budget gap after Wharton Center officials announced in November they will discontinue paying to fill the shortfall.
“Picnic with Miriam Pico,” a Traverse City televised live variety show launched last winter to raise money for area nonprofits, will hit the stage for another six-week run of Wednesday “bring-your-own bag” lunches. This time the showcase of local talent will solicit donations to save the City Opera House, also sometimes called the “grand lady,” by Kristi Dokter, its operations and marketing director.
The noon shows start Jan. 22 and run through Feb. 26. Admission is free, but organizers pass a hat for donations.
More than 600 people – an average 100 per show – crowded into the Opera House’s second-floor reception area last year to watch not only the entertainment but also the people with “Applause!” signs and other stage directions. The six shows raised $2,825 in donations, said Karen Fulkerson, UpNorthMedia Center’s outreach director.
The hour-long variety shows were so popular that they will be moved to the auditorium, which will seat more than 150 patrons cabaret style, said Dokter. That adds an extra 300 chairs to series’ six shows.
Tables with chairs for about 170 people will sprawl on the auditorium floor in front of the stage and another 50 chairs will ring the perimeter.
“Plus we also can use the upstairs balcony,” Dokter said.
All proceeds this year will go to the 686-seat Opera House, a nonprofit that last year hosted 130 events, including 30 performing arts productions.
Pico, a popular Traverse City singer and songwriter, will lead the show that also will be broadcast live by UpNorthTV, the community’s public access television station.
The idea for last year’s show came from Joe VanderMeulen, executive director of Land Information Access Association, UpNorthTV’s parent organization. He saw it as an experiment in community sustainability to raise money and build more partnerships between area nonprofits. The Opera House is important to Traverse City, he said.
“It’s an anchoring landmark for the Traverse City area and a key venue for all things community,” he said. “As a nonprofit, it is continually giving back to the community, showcasing talent and building connections that last a lifetime — like Picnic at the Opera.”
Other partners in the show include Artcenter Traverse City, Northwestern Michigan College and WTCM News Talk 580, downtown businesses, local visual artists, musicians and young poets in the Front Street Writers, a collaboration between the National Writers Series and Traverse City Area Public Schools.
Each one-hour show will feature Pico, with pianist David Chown on the keyboards, guest performers, interviews with a local visual artist, a poetry reading by a Front Street Writers student and a fashion show. WTCM Radio’s Jamie Kramer will co-host the fashion show.
“It will be a fast-paced show with a lot of variety,” Fulkerson said. “When we say variety, we mean variety.”
This year’s performance will be broadcast live on UpNorthTV cable channels 97 and 992 and also streamed live on line at www.upnorthmedia.org. Recorded episodes will repeat each week on the cable channels and also will be available on demand at the website.
Construction of the City Opera House began in 1891 and three Bohemian downtown merchants — Charles Wilhelm, Frank Votruba and Anthony Bartak — formally opened it in February 1892.
It has hosted everything from plays, operettas and women’s suffrage conventions to movies, balls, banquets and even basketball games. It closed in 1940. The Votruba family donated the building to the city in the early 1980s so it could qualify for federal restoration grants. It reopened in 1985.
Today, it is one of six historically intact Victorian opera houses in Michigan. It is also the home of the National Writers Series and a venue for the Traverse City Film Festival, Winter Comedy Arts Festival, Poet’s Night Out, spelling bees and other events.
The “Picnic” series is part of the Opera House’s “Keep Art at the Heart” fundraising effort launched in November after the Wharton Center for Performing Art at Michigan State University informed Opera House officials the center could no longer continue to manage and book acts for the nonprofit unless it closed its $250,000 funding gap.
The Wharton Center has covered losses since it took over management in 2010 and says the Opera House must either come up with the money on its own or shrink its operations.
Wharton Center officials said in November that ticket prices cover only 40 percent of Opera House performances and the deficit could be erased if 2,500 people could donate $100 by Dec. 31.
The outcome of that request is still unknown. Wharton Center manager Diana Baribeau said this week that 2013’s final budget totals won’t be available for at least one more week. The Opera House’s 2014 budget also is still in the works until grants are finalized sometime in February.
ABOUT MIRIAM Singer-songwriter Miriam Pico brings a lot of variety to the stage herself. She sings everything from swing, blues and jazz to rock, pop, show tunes and country. Born in Puerto Rico in the mid-1980s, she came to this country at age 2 with her mother Gladys Munoz and three older siblings. A dynamic live performer in the local club scene, she is now working on her sixth CD, "Travel Happy," which will be released on May 14, her birthday. One-third of the songs are her original music. She has her own Miriam Pico Band and plays regular gigs at Kilkenny's Irish Pub on Wednesday nights in the basement lounge at North Peak Brewing Co. and Thursday evenings at Phil's on Front with pianist David Chown, where the duo performs mostly swing music from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. "Variety has kept me sane and balanced," said Pico, the mother of a three children, 6, 4, and 2. "I really enjoy doing everything." Pico played before her biggest audience ever - an street crowd of and estimated 10,000 people who attended the city's New Year's Eve downtown Cherry T-Ball Drop.