Preserving New England: The Newport Opera House Theater by Carla Charter

The Newport Opera House Theater

Article by Carla Charter @ Chairside New England History
Opera House Theaters were entertainment focal points of cities throughout New England and the country in the 1800’s. They attracted vaudeville acts, theater productions, musicians and performers of all kinds. Orators too, speaking on behalf of a variety of causes, including Woman’s Rights and Abolition, also brought audiences to the Theater.
Then there was the sheer architecture of the buildings themselves. The arched windows, the vaulted ceilings, and the plaster columns, all contributed to the elegance of a night out at the theater.
Despite the opera house era being long past, there are still beautiful relics of the time which will transport us back to that era of simple elegance. One such Grande Dame of the past, the fifth oldest Opera House in the nation, is currently under renovation in Washington Square, in Newport Rhode Island.
According to the Newport Opera House website, http://operahousetheaternewportri.org/, this theater was built in 1867, as an amenity to the newly finished Perry House Hotel, by railroad man and hotelier P. C. Shanahan and designed by architect and builder James Rudolph The Opera House Theater offered traditional productions, musical comedies, minstrel shows, burlesque performances, pre-Broadway theatrical openings and oratories as well as civic and community events.
Among the many prominent entertainers who visited the Newport Theater were Douglas Fairbanks, John Barrymore, Mary Pickford, and Duke Ellington. In addition, the theater hosted productions by projects produced by Oscar Hammerstein, George M. Cohan and Schubert. Visiting orators included Harriet Beecher Stone and Frederick Douglass also attracted large audiences of the time.
In 1929 the theater’s owner, Harry R. Horgan oversaw the remaking of the opera house into a theater that accommodated both live shows and film. The rebuilt theater opened on Christmas night 1929 with the musical comedy, Sunny Side Up, starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. Live shows continued at the theater for a time, but eventually evolved into a full-time movie house.
In 1979, the theater transformed once again, into a more modest “twin” theater that could show two films simultaneously. Within a few years, a third theater was created. This theater continued until 2010, when it closed.
This however was not the end of the Opera House Theater. Instead it was only the beginning of it’s second act. Beginning in 2000, a group of Newport community business leaders begin to develop a new vision and use for the theater. After a study of possible locations in which to establish a live performance theater in the area, a charitable non-profit organization, The Newport Performing Arts Center purchased the deteriorating building and became dedicated to bringing it back to its original use as a Performing Arts Theater. In 2002-2003, the outside façade was restored to its original 1867 appearance.
In 2010, work began on the interior of the theater, including stripping away late 20th century layers and additions to the theater to reveal the historically significant architecture of the Opera House Theater. Rediscovered architecture included a soaring 50 foot proscenium arch, decorative plaster wall columns, vaulted ceilings and arched windows. Smaller discoveries have been made as well according to Bob Ensign Communications and marketing Director for the theater, including programs and other artifacts in the walls.
The opera house team and their consultants have addressed the necessary repairs and the reopening of the Newport Opera House Theater is scheduled for the Winter of 2018, in time for the building’s 150th anniversary, Ensign continued “The Newport Performing Arts Center will be a year round, world class, cultural asset. It will be an educational catalyst and economic driver for Newport and Southern New England.”
Restoration takes funding. The theater has received both public and private financial support including a $4.2 million dollar Creative, Cultural Economy Bond in 2014, which was approved overwhelming by taxpayers, Ensign said. He continued that the bond required matching funds which the theater matched last week. “We thank Rhode Islanders, people across New England and the country” for their support he continued. Fundraising for renovations continue. Contributions can be made at the theater’s website.

Do you have a New England history story? Contact Carla at cjfreelancewriter@earthlink.net

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