VIRGINIA CITY - When Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt steps in front of a Piper's Opera House crowd Saturday night, she won't be campaigning for office or giving a speech.
She'll be reenacting a career that predates politician or even successful small business owner - the girl singer with the swing band.
"I'll Be Seeing You," a wine and music gala to raise funds for the continuing restoration of Piper's, features an 18-piece professional swing band, and Hunt has been recruited along with her husband to sing along.
Hunt and husband Blackie Hunt have not sung for money since 1972, when they built the Bootlegger Restaurant and Valley East plaza shopping center in Las Vegas.
"But we've performed a lot since then for good causes, like the Piper's fund raiser," Hunt said.
The Piper's Opera House Swing Band, convened especially for the occasion, will be led by Brian Farnon, who was musical director at Harrah's Tahoe during the 1960s-90s, the period when Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole played the showroom and an ingenue Barbra Streisand opened for Liberace.
In the 1950s and '60s, Hunt, performing as Lauri Perri, was singing with the Mary Kaye Trio in lounges in Las Vegas and Reno, backed by big bands while they performed the close harmonies of pop jazz tunes. She married Blackie Hunt, a member of a musical comedy group called the Characters that worked the same circuit.
The Hunts were visiting Virginia City recently when they got a tour of Piper's.
"When I saw it, I said, 'I hope you're doing everything you can to restore it. Just think of all the talent that has echoed from those halls," said Hunt, who became chairwoman of the Nevada Commission on Tourism with her election as lieutenant governor.
"They told us about the restoration and asked Blackie and me to come and perform.
"We still haven't decided what we're singing, but with a professional orchestra like that, we'll just bring along some lead sheets and the musicians will make us sound great!"
With a 1940s theme, the signature piece of era songwriters Irving Kahal and Sammy Fain, "I'll Be Seeing You," sets the tone for an evening of music, wine tasting, and silent and live auctions.
The gala runs 5-9 p.m. Saturday and the $25 tickets can be reserved by calling 847-0454 or 847-0216.
Piper's was built in 1862 (and rebuilt twice following fires) and was the venue for performances by notables of the stage, opera and theater in both the 19th and 20th centuries.
A private foundation was formed to accomplish the restoration and is partway through the effort, funded by grants, private donations and fund raisers like the gala, which is intended to become an annual event.
After the first round of improvements including gas-fired heaters, insulation and indoor plumbing, Piper's is set for a season of public performances. They begin with "Annie Get Your Gun" in April, starring Lacy J. Dalton.
During the summer, four daily variety shows will fill the Piper's stage during the days, while performances of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Hamlet" are set in the evenings. "Macbeth (in Black Leather)" is scheduled in September and October, overlapping the "Street Vibrations" motorcycle festival in Reno.
And Hal Holbrook will return to the Piper's stage in December with an encore performance of "Mark Twain Tonight!," which he presented in the opera house in 1981.
Hunt said she is excited about the revival of Piper's as a cultural attraction at Virginia City. But she said she hopes additional hotel accommodations are developed, so tourists are encouraged to make the Comstock community an overnight destination and enjoy the offerings on the opera house stage.
"The key to economic vitality for Virginia City is more rooms," she said. "Then people will stay with their kids. They'll feel like having dinner and some wine, which they hesitate to do now when they're faced with driving back down Geiger Grade.
"I'd like to see a hotel-casino near Piper's, which could cross-promote and tie in with the performances there."