EXTREME MAKEOVER

Not too long ago, when Boston's lower Washington Street was overrun with peep shows and porn shops, the once splendorous Opera House stood crumbling. Last Friday the newly restored theater reopened with a performance of "The Lion King," and patrons saw it as it was when it opened in 1928--with all the gilding, murals, white Carrara marble and 12-foot hand-blown chandeliers. "This was an opulent European palace," says Tony McLean of Clear Channel Entertainment, which spent $38 million on the restoration.

The reopening of Boston's Opera House is part of a nationwide renaissance of the grand theaters that once dotted every city. Successful touring productions of shows like "The Lion King" and "The Producers" are driving the restorations, along with the strength of the preservation movement and the revival of urban downtowns. From the recently reopened Hippodrome Theater in Baltimore to the California Theater in San Jose--reopening in September after a 31-year vacancy and a $73 million restoration--so many upgrades are in the works that the League of Historic American Theatres started a best-of-the-year award (this year's winner will be announced Saturday).

City planners see the projects as catalysts for more redevelopment. In Boston, word of the Opera House's renewal sparked a revival of the old theater district, where a movie theater, hotel and gym have popped up. "That never would have happened without the Opera House cleaning itself up," says Boston Redevelopment Authority director Mark Maloney. It's a story worthy of a Broadway show.