BOSTON, Dec. 1 (UPI) -- Beneath a decade of grit and grime, the glitter struggles to shine through within the dark and silent Boston Opera House.
Once the crown jewel of performing arts theaters in Boston, the Opera House has fallen into disrepair since it closed in 1991.
The paint is peeling, plaster is crumbling, the wall murals and gold leaf detailing has been dulled by years of soot, the carpets are stained and the seating area is mildewed and decayed.
That is about to change. Like countless ladies on television talk shows, the Opera House is getting a makeover. It will be a $31-million makeover.
The recently launched project is to restore the original design and condition inside and out of what has been described as "one of the nicest theaters in the world."
It's a pet project of Mayor Thomas Menino, who has been pushing for the renovation since 1996 as part of his effort to revitalize the old theater district along Washington Street in the heart of downtown Boston, just a few blocks north from what used to be the "Combat Zone," a once sleazy collection of sex-oriented shops, bars and porno movie houses.
"This project is not just about neighborhood renewal and fostering the arts and culture in our city," Menino said. "It's about preserving our history."
When a court in September removed the final obstacle to renovation, Menino declared, "The glory days are coming back to Washington Street."
Menino said it was a "great day" when he handed the official building permit to renovators in recent ceremonies on the grand staircase inside the theater's two-story marble-pillared, mirrored and brass-appointed lobby.
Several hundred people gathered there for a chance to view the deterioration first hand and hear plans for the extensive face-lift.
Overseeing the project is Clear Channel Entertainment, a leading promoter and producer of live entertainment.
"After the extensive renovation, the Opera House will re-emerge as an architectural jewel and New England's finest and most historically significant performing arts venue," said Clear Channel theatrical chief executive Scott Zeiger.
Zeiger said theater program producers around the world "are waiting for this theater to open. We look forward to presenting quality live theater to the people of New England."
Project architect Gary Martinez said restoring the Opera House with its white terra cotta façade and French Baroque interior would be "more like surgery" than building a new structure.
Renovation plans include replacing the existing small stage that was designed for vaudeville-era acts with a larger stage, along with dressing rooms and loading facilities to accommodate such large Broadway productions as "The Lion King," which likely will be the first production when the theater reopens in 2004.
Opened in 1928 as the B.F. Keith Memorial Theatre at a cost of $5 million, the then 2,900-seat theater was modeled after the Paris Opera House.
Designed in the Beaux Arts manner by theater architect Thomas W. Lamb as a memorial to B.F. Keith, the "father of vaudeville," the theater was also considered one of the finest moving picture palaces of its time.
Among those attending the inaugural program on Oct. 29, 1928, were famed entertainers George M. Cohan, Lew Fields and Al Jolson. The program featured such stage acts as the Eddie Foy family, while on the screen Colleen Moore starred in the film, "Oh Kay!"
As vaudeville declined, the theater remained a first-run picture house. It was obtained by Sack Theatres in 1965 and renamed the Savoy Theatre. It continued to operate as a film house until 1978 when bought by Sarah Caldwell and the Opera Company of Boston.
Re-named the Opera House, the theater was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
The last production to play there was "Black Nativity" on Dec. 23, 1990.
The theater went dark and silent in 1991, when Caldwell and her Opera Company ran into financial difficulties and could not pay the bills.
In 1996 she agreed to option the property to Theatre Management Group, a Houston-based unit now part of Clear Channel. Her agreement, still valid, calls for assurances she would be allowed to stage 12 weeks of opera each year.
Officials hope to have the renovated 2,500-seat facility completed in time for the Democratic National Convention that will take place in Boston in the summer of 2004.
"This is a spectacular building that offers spectacular opportunities," said David Anderson, president of Clear Channel's theater management operation. "It's the crown jewel theater in America."