Built in 1921 to honor those killed in World War I and as a successor to the two Rohrbaugh theaters (both burned) that came before it, the OMA flourished through the war years and survived the devastating Franklin County flood of 1951, but was badly damaged. It fell into disrepair and neglect, though eventually was given a breath of new life in the late 1970s thanks to a laudable renovation effort by the City of Ottawa — on behalf of a taxpayer-approved bond issue.
In its revived heyday, the OMA saw such acts as Johnny Cash, Reba McIntire, Ricky Skaggs, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Mickey Rooney grace its stage, but decades of change — including easier access to competing venues in the Kansas City area — and a community shift away from spending money locally on entertainment, goods and services took a toll on the auditorium, as it did many small businesses in the county. The OMA has been plagued in recent years by a bat infestation (now removed, of course), heating and cooling problems and overdue upgrades and fixes.
The City of Ottawa, which maintains the auditorium as a public utility of sorts, has done its best to balance the preservation of the historic site and keeping its doors open with being fiscally responsible with taxpayers’ money. But the OMA can’t continue to bleed money without being more self-sustaining.
That’s where event organizers and community members come in.
What a joy it was to read in Tuesday’s Herald that nearly 700 people packed the auditorium Saturday night for the “Star Spangled Evening with Mike Huckabee.” Though a political event in nature, it showed the OMA still can be a viable venue for a variety of showcases. Whether it’s playing host to a former presidential candidate like Huckabee or to local singer Travis Marvin, bringing young musicians to the stage for a battle of the bands or providing a worship space for churches and revivals, the auditorium still has room to give.
While the venue clearly has potential, organizers seem to be attempting to carve a niche for the OMA, recruiting nostalgic musical acts to help draw concert-goers to the auditorium’s seats. Recent success stories have included country music stars of yesteryear Mark Chesnutt, Pam Tillis and Johnny Lee.
Another country singer, Collin Raye, is set to take the stage this weekend. Raye is expected to perform many of his hit songs, which include “Little Red Rodeo,” “One Boy, One Girl” and “Love Me.” Saturday’s event is the latest in a series of performances at the OMA that rival the lineups of many nearby community’s summer festival concerts.
When the Little River Band performed last month at the OMA, tickets were in the $35-$40 range. The band is set to play in the area again Nov. 16 at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City, where tickets for the show cost between $40 and $70 each.
Promoters of the OMA deserve a lot of credit for their efforts to make the auditorium a destination once again. But more work remains.
Last weekend’s Huckabee event was a success for a number of reasons, including the Fox News TV host and former Arkansas governor’s name recognition and the hard work of Franklin County Republican Central Committee members who organized the evening. But people also were drawn to the Saturday-night OMA event because of its integrated marketing campaign — which included not only a banner outside the auditorium, but more importantly, advertisements in the newspaper, online and on the radio — proving the best way to pack the house is to let people know why they can’t miss the show.
City leaders periodically discuss “mothballing” the OMA, a move that likely would prove fiscally responsible, but would be a sad blow to local entertainment and history. Let’s hope creativity and innovation at the auditorium stay in the spotlight, allowing community members the opportunity to help the venue survive.
— Tommy Felts,