McClure's $3 million gift boosts Springer Opera House's $11.5 million capital campaign

Calling Dorothy “Dot” McClure’s $3 million gift “transformational,” Springer Opera House artistic director Paul Pierce announced Monday an $11.5 million capital campaign, “Set the Stage,” that will alter parts of First and Second avenues.

With McClure’s gift as the catalyst, the Springer has raised an additional $4.3 million in pledges from 125 donors, which will go toward building a flexible space children’s theater, a learning park adjacent to the theater and more classrooms for the Springer Theater Academy. The campaign will also raise money for improvements to the Springer Opera House itself. This project will add more than 35,000 square feet for children’s programming.

The classroom complex will be built first; and after the remaining $4.2 million is raised, the theater and park will be completed.

McClure is a long-time Springer trustee and one-time actress. She made the gift through the McClure Family Foundation.

The first phase of the project began Monday with a “break a leg” groundbreaking as Springer employees, board members and students surrounded McClure as she broke the leg of a gold-painted mannequin. “Break a leg” is a term actors use to wish each other luck before going on stage.

The classrooms are expected to be finished by May and ready for the Springer Theater Academy’s summer session. The classrooms will be constructed in already existing buildings that do not have to be demolished. On First Avenue, the buildings were once used for an office supply house and a Western Union office. A third building, which was added on to the Springer, will be used to store props. It, too, will be renovated.

Since the Theater Academy was established in 1996, more than 5,000 children have been through the program, which emphasizes building “life skills through theater skills.”

“We know the impact on many of them,” said Ron Anderson, director of the Theater Academy. “We are trying to positively change the whole child.”

“I am so excited,” said Academy student Marisa Nunez, 15, a Pacelli High School sophomore. She’s been in the Academy for 10 years.

Hoping for growth

Pierce is hoping the project will “activate businesses on First and Second avenues” and help bring economic growth and development to the area. He said when Francis Joseph Springer built the theater in 1871, it brought new businesses downtown. A renovation in 1964 also brought merchants downtown, and the theater’s full restoration in 1998 helped spark the downtown resurgence.

Mat Swift, the president of the W.C. Bradley Real Estate Division and member of the Springer board, is spearheading the capital campaign with Sam Wellborn, the retired CB&T president and chairman and CEO of the Synovus Foundation.

“Why in this crazy economy are we going to this campaign? We’ve already raised a big chunk of the money. Really, the answer is simple. We have to meet a community need,” Swift said.

Swift said the Springer needs the new educational wing and facilities and part of the money will be put in the endowment fund to help preserve the 139-year-old building.

“The Springer is truly a jewel, and we have to be good stewards of this jewel,” he said.

Swift’s daughter, Lindsay, was an Academy student, so he said he knows first-hand how the program teaches children self-esteem, confidence and leadership.

A proud benefactor

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” McClure said. “Oh, dear. I’m embarrassed when it’s called the McClure Theater. It’s everybody’s theater. But I’m very proud, too.”

When she meets the children in the academy every summer, she tells the story of how a number of Columbus residents got together to save the Springer from the wrecking ball.

“She doesn’t like that many of the children think she saved the Springer,” Anderson said. “But she loves telling the story.”

Before Monday’s press conference, McClure, surrounded by Academy students, told the story once more, this time in front of a video camera.