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The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Six Historic Opera Houses

Opera houses didn’t become a feature of American cities and towns until after the Civil War, though they existed before the American Revolution. The first of the American opera houses is believed to be in Williamsburg, Va., and dates to 1722.

Many early Americans thought the theater disreputable. The Continental Congress sure did. Calling it be ‘unpatriotic and unacceptable’, Congress banned theater in 1774.  Puritanical New England went further: Theater was banned in Massachusetts until 1790, and illegal in Connecticut from 1800 to 1952 – at least technically.

In the prosperous years after the Civil War, most big cities had opera houses. Politicians in smaller towns wanted one, too. They thought it would make their town more cosmopolitan, and believed an opera house was as important as a church or a jail, according to the Camden City Hall and Opera House National Register of Historic Places nomination.  And:

An opera house provided a sense of urbanity and many small communities used them as an enticement for the railroad companies to establish a stop in their villages.

Some cities, like Rochester, N.H., combined their opera house with government offices. It made economic sense: the money raised from the theater could be used to help pay for the city hall.

Rarely were there operas in the early opera houses. They featured stage plays and vaudeville acts, later becoming movie theaters. Many opera houses grew tarnished and tired before they were renovated by local do-gooders. Such was the case for opera houses in five New England states. The unusual library and opera house that straddles the Canadian border in Vermont is the exception.

Here, then, are six New England opera houses and their stories. If  you know of any other opera houses worth mentioning, please note them in the comments section.

Goodspeed Opera House

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The Goodspeed Opera House has overlooked the Connecticut River in East Haddam since it was built by a local merchant and banker, William Goodspeed, in 1877.

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Though it was called an opera house it produced plays.  The first, Charles II, opened on Oct. 24, 1877.

After William Goodspeed died, the building was used as a militia base during World War I, a store and a warehouse for the Department of Transportation. In 1959, the state of Connecticut condemned the building. The state agreed to sell it for a dollar to a group of citizens who took four years to restore the building.

In 1963, Goodspeed reopened as a venue for musicals, opening with Oh, Lady! Lady! Michael P. Price took over as director in 1968 and stayed until 2014. Ssince then, Goodspeed sent 21 musicals to Broadway – including Annie, Man of La Mancha and Little Johnny Jones -- and won more than a dozen Tony Awards.

The theater is on the top two floors, which makes it a challenge to load and unload scenery. Legend has it that while loading the scenery for Annie, a gust of wind blew a large piece of scenery from the play Annie into the Connecticut River.

6 Main St., East Haddam, Conn.

Stonington Opera House

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The opera house in Stonington is one of 66 buildings identified as opera houses in Maine, though it isn’t clear how many survive. It’s probably the oldest in the state with an original design for theater.

Typical of entertainment venues in Maine towns during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Stonington Opera House occupies a commanding position overlooking Stonington Harbor. It was built on a site used as a music hall since 1886 as the town’s population began to swell because of the granite quarrying nearby.

The building hosted national touring shows which arrived via steamboat from Rockland. It burned to the ground in 1910 – on the night the town’s first fire hydrants started working.

A prominent local citizen, Dr. B. Lake Noyes, rebuilt the Opera House. It seated only 250 people in folding chairs, and was used to screen silent movies, for high school graduations, dances and basketball games. In 1928, the town dentist bought it as a cinema, and two movies were booked most nights along with vaudeville acts. During that time artist John Marin included the Opera House (including the words) in several watercolor paintings.

Television ate into the movie business in the 1950s and the building was sold in 1962 to be used as a roller skating rink. Three young entrepreneurs bought the building in 1979, saved it from weather damage and showed summer movies until 1992. The building was then abandoned for years, but rescued in 1999 by a nonprofit called Opera House Arts. Today it offers theatre, music, dance, film and community events 52 weeks a year.

1 Opera House Ln., Stonington, Maine

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Boston Opera House

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The Boston Opera House was built as a lavish theater for vaudeville and movies in the Keith-Albee chain.  It opened on Oct. 29, 1928 and was called the B.F. Keith Memorial Theatre after Benjamin Franklin Keith who had built the chain. His vaudeville shows were derided as ‘the Sunday school circuit’ because they had to be clean – so clean the performers weren’t allowed to use the vulgar word ‘pants.’

Keith had long since died by the time the theatre bearing his name opened in Boston’s Downtown Crossing.

That same year the Keith-Albee chain merged with a western rival and became KAO, which was taken over by Joseph P. Kennedy. Kennedy merged it with his own small studio and RCA; the new company became RKO. From 1929 to the mid-1950s the Boston Opera House, then called RKO Keith’s, was a showcase for first-run films.

Movies were on the wane in the late 1950s and the once-elegant theatre deteriorated along with the neighborhood. The Sack Theaters Co. bought it in 1965, divided it into two cinemas and renamed it the Savoy. By 1980, the building was a wreck. The Opera Company of Boston, run by opera impresario Sarah Caldwell, bought it, renovated it and renamed it the Boston Opera House.

The Boston Opera House then became the rare New England opera house that actually staged operas. For 10 years, Caldwell staged innovative operas including a number of U.S. premieres such as The Ice Break, Dead Souls and Montezuma, and the world premiere of The Balco

The Opera Company of Boston collapsed under financial pressure in 1991. The theater was left dark and unheated. Water damaged the elaborate plaster interior, and costumes that had been saved for decades were lost. Finally in 1999, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, youngest son of Joseph Kennedy, got landmark status for the building and The Clear Channel Company agreed to renovate it.

The Boston Opera House reopened on July 16, 2004 with the Broadway production of The Lion King. It’s now owned by a couple of Boston venture capitalists and is home to Broadway Across America and the Boston Ballet.

539 Washington St., Boston, Mass.

Rochester City Hall and Opera House

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Business was booming in Rochester, N.H., when the Rochester Opera House opened on Memorial Day in 1908 with a singular feature: a movable floor. Rochester’s citizens took pride in the magnificent theater by a well-known architect, George Gilman Adams. It had a horseshoe balcony, grand proscenium, excellent acoustics and elaborate decoration. The floor could be raised for an audience to watch the stage performance or lowered as a dance floor.

Its space is shared with the city government, as are opera houses in Camden, Maine, Waterville, Maine, and Burlington, Vt.

All kinds of performances were staged at the opera house, except opera. By 1940, the Rochester Opera House’s luster had faded, and it was used by such groups as the Elks and Royal Order of Moose for charity dances. In 1962, a local entrepreneur named Bob LeBlanc began producing as many as 10 Broadway shows over 11 summers and drew large crowds.

A decade of abandonment followed. The first restoration project began in 1984, but ended after an estimate at fixing the floor came in at $1,220,000, more than a thousand times the original cost of $1,100.

Local leaders renewed the effort to renovate the old opera house, and in 1997 it opened its doors again for live theater performances. In 2017, the Rochester Opera House is staging tribute bands, comedians, dance performances and orchestral concerts

31 Wakefield St., Rochester, N.H.

Newport Opera House Theater and Performing Arts Center

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The Newport Opera House, one of the nation’s oldest, was undergoing restoration in the summer of 2017 with a planned opening in 2018. Patrick Shanahan built it in 1867 next to his hotel to cater to wealthy gilded age elite.  He called it Shanahan’s Opera House.

It was one of the stylish buildings surrounding Newport’s Washington Square. Douglas Fairbanks, John Barrymore and Mary Pickford, appeared on its stage; so did Harriet Beecher Strwe, Frederick Douglass and Duke Ellington.

The hotel was torn down after a fire in 1955 and the top floor of the opera house taken off two years later.

It was renovated as a movie theater, then chopped up into a triplex in 1979. Local civic leaders decided Newport needed a year-round performing arts center, formed a nonprofit and closed the opera house in 2010. Since then it's been gutted to reveal historically significant architectural features such as the soaring proscenium arch, decorative plaster wall columns, vaulted ceilings and arched windows.

The Newport Opera House will bring year-round performing arts to downtown Newport, including dance, music, theater, comedy and speakers.

19 Touro St., Newport, R.I.

Haskell Free Library and Opera House

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Martha Stewart Haskell, a Canadian, in 1904  gave the Haskell Free Library and Opera House to Stanstead, Quebec and Derby Line, Vt., in honor of her late husband Carlos, an American sawmill owner. The building’s ornate interior ran the cost of the building to $50,000 – about $130 million in today’s dollars.

Since then, it has been a cherished cultural institution for Americans and Canadians in the surrounding towns.

The international border runs right through the building, marked by black electrical tape on the floor. It was put there after a small fire in the 1970s caused a fight between U.S. and Canadian insurance companies.

The circulation desk is in Canada, the books are in the U.S, while most of the theater seats are on the American side and the stage is in Canada. It’s said the Haskell is the only U.S. library without books and the only theater without a stage. The original drop curtain, scenery, props and stage machinery are well preserved.

Since 9/11, U.S. and Canadian officials have stepped up security around the Haskell Free Library and Opera House. Homeland Security and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have lined the street with cameras and stationed a border guard out front. Canadians have to cross the international line to enter the building and leave by the same door; otherwise, they'll be picked up for illegal entry.

President Obama mentioned the library in March 2016 when he welcomed Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Afterward, librarians noticed an increase in the number of asylum seekers using the library to try to cross the border. And in

Mrs. Haskell intended the 400-seat theater on the second floor to generate enough money to support the library on the first. It never did, but it did provide entertainment: vaudeville shows, jazz and blues concerts, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, I Musici de Montreal, dramas, children’s theater and Gilbert and Sullivan musicals by the Montreal West Operatic Society.

93 Cassell Ave., Derby Line, Vt.

Photos: Opera House Theater, Newport: By Swampyank at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18003269; Boston Opera House By Ruthanne Reid from USA - Boston Opera House, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18295357

2 comments

  1. The opening sentence about the Goodspeed Opera house: “If you’ve driven through Connecticut on I-91, you’ve probably seen the Goodspeed Opera House high on a hill overlooking the Connecticut River in East Haddam” – is totally incorrect and impossible. I-91 is far away and the opera house is down near the water.

  2. I saw my first play at the Hyde Park Opera House in Hyde Park, Vermont: https://hydeparkvt.com/hyde-park-opera-house/ It is still active. I remember most being totally fascinated at how what was obviously a small stage could look so big with the use of sets! Many years later I did set design and painting for another community theater. It was just as fascinating to be the magician as it was to see the magic!

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