In 1988 the Wanganui City Council announced that, because it was concerned about the cost of running the historic theatre, it might hand the Opera House over to the community to run.
Early in 1989 a group of people with theatrical and community interests at heart formed a "Friends of the Opera House" steering committee. Their aim was to preserve the historic building as a "full working theatre for the use and enjoyment of the community". They were representative of the performing arts in Wanganui and were: Derick Matthews, chairman; Margaret Saunders, secretary; Diane Moreland, Delphine Turney, David Smiles, David Bennett, Rhys Barker, John Richardson, Jim Ennis anhd Morris Richards. By May the Friends had moved to become an incorporated society and registered charity with theatre veteran Derick Matthews at the helm. The society established a $5 membership fee and held its first event, a gala variety concert, on 4 June 1989. The acts, designed to show the full potential of stage, included a fire-eater, a magician, singers, musicians, a choir, dancers and drama groups from local theatre companies. Am impressive floral display was organised and opened to the public for viewing two days before the concert.
A newspaper editorial encouraged the public to support the Sunday concert, acknowledging that, in a city that had recently lost two theatres and many other old buildings, the preservation of the "only Victorian-style theatre in the country, the largest stage in Wanganui and the only public auditorium able to seat 1100, was essential". It warned that "initial enthusiasm was one thing, sustained commitment was another".
By the following year, when the group held its first AGM on May 30, 1990, it had maintained the public interest and Derick Matthews was elected as president. Also elected was Diane Moreland as treasurer with a supporting committee being Delphine Turney, Chrissie Garmonsway, Jim Ennis, David Smiles, David Bennett, Richard Overton and Bill Lind. The secretary selected from the committee was Chrissie Garmonsway while Opera House manager, John Richardson, became a member but without voting rights.
With support from the community, businesses and the Historic Places Trust the society has flourished, although not without its struggles. It has achieved a huge volume of restoration work and other projects. These have included installing sprinklers (the best Christmas present Derick matthews have ever had); reorganising the orchestra pit to accomodate a full 50-piece orchestra; returning (with Lions Club assistance) the downstairs seating to the staggered arrangement the architect originally intended; creation of new toilets downstairs, including a paraplegic facility; developing an upstairs lounge, sweet stall and bar; redraping the stage; upgrading the lighting board; recarpeting; recabling; relaying the stage floor; providing the computerised ticketing system; extending the annexe, including a servery, laundry and additional dressing room; adding a new manager's office and electrics room; installing a full production sound system; repainting backstage and installing gas heating in the annexe. Currently the theatre is being moved towards LED stage lighting. In addition they've ensured that audiences have had the opportunity to enjoy various performers who would have otherwise not have come to Wanganui. They have also provided financial support to some of our young people to further their experiences.The proceeds from the bar and sweetstall, the profit from the ticketing system and local grants schemes is used to provide the capital extras. The Friends are also grateful for contributions from the local community, especially Shirley McDouall who has donated over $60,000 from the proceeds of her dance school productions.
The Friends volunteers voluntary labour can be measured in the thousands of hours. As well as major work, the Friends provide all the front-of-house staff and the core backstage crew. A working bee is held at least once a week on a Tuesday night at 7.30pm ( additional helpers always welcome). Extra working bees are held as required. The work done at these sessions can range from minor maintenance to a full scale pre-rig for an event.
While not involved in managing the Opera House, the Friends work closely with the Manager and the Board to achieve what is needed with its priority being the preservation of the buidling and its retention as a full working theatre.