The Riley Center is operated and owned by Mississippi State University. It features the historic former Grand Opera House and a conference and educational center that was once the Rothenberg Department Store.
Backstory and Context
Marks and the Rothenberg brothers were, respectively, first and second-generation Jewish immigrants from Europe. When Marks arrived, he started to sell dry goods to rural families. By 1870, he owned a wholesale dry goods business here in Meridian. In 1887, he and the Rothenberg brothers established a new wholesale grocery and dry goods company called Marks, Rothenberg & Company, which would become one of the largest such companies in the South. By the late 1880s, Meridian was becoming a prosperous town, given that it was a railroad stop between Chicago to New Orleans. To encourage the town's continued development, as well as to promote the arts in the community, Marks and the brothers decided to erect Opera House and Rothenberg Deparment Store building that would achieve both goals.
The Opera House opened on December 17, 1890 with a performance of an operetta by Johann Strauss. The theater had more than 1,000 seats and the stage was large—30x50 feet—which allowed the biggest shows from New York to perform in Meridian. Above the stage on the proscenium arch was a painting depicting a woman surrounded by flowers. She became known as "The Lady" and the Opera House is often called that today. The stage also had a fire curtain, which would prevent fires from spreading to the seating area.
The Opera House was remodeled in 1902 and again in 1920 to show movies. Its decline started in 1923 when it was leased to a movie company from New Orleans. In 1927, the theater closed after it failed to meet safety requirements including having the proper number of exits. The company also failed to meet the requirements of the lease. It bought another theater wanted to convert the Opera House into an office building. However, the lease included a clause stating that the Opera House could only be used as a theater. The company then vacated the building and refused to pay the $1,000 monthly rent, compelling the Rothenbergs (it appears Israel Marks had died by then) to take the company to court. By the time the court case was resolved (the Rothenbergs won), the Great Depression had started and the theater company had declared bankruptcy, forcing the Opera House to close for good.
It seems the Opera House remained unused for several decades. The department store, however, operated until 1990. The exterior of the building was covered in metal siding in then 1960s to "modernize" it. It started to return to its former glory in the 1980s when some of the siding was removed. Since then, the building has undergone restoration. The most recent effort started in 2000, when the Riley Foundation donated $10 million for the project on the condition that Mississippi State University own and operate the building. That work was completed in 2006.
"History & Renovation." Riley Center. Accessed January 6, 2020. https://www.msurileycenter.com/about/history-and-renovation.
Maddox, Dawn. "Grand Opera House." National Park Service - National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form. December 27, 1972. https://npgallery.nps.gov/GetAsset/ba38cf24-2456-4ee1-bd38-6ac1aead9b3d.
"Meridian, Mississippi." Institute of Southern Jewish Life. Accessed January 8, 2020. https://www.isjl.org/mississippi-meridian-encyclopedia.html.
Mitchell, Dennis J. "Grand Opera House of Mississippi." Mississippi History Now. Retrieved from the WebArchive on January 7, 2020. https://web.archive.org/web/20100824052119/http://mshistory.k12.ms.us/articles/167/grand-opera-house-of-mississippi.
"Mississippi Grand Opera House / Riley Education and Performing Arts Center." Grand Opera House. Retrieved from the WebArchive on January 7, 2020. https://web.archive.org/web/20100209005620/http://www.meridianms.org/2000project.htm.
Michael Barera, via Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Meridian_December_2018_32_(Mississippi_State_University_-_Meridian_Riley_Center).jpg