The First 50 Years
Since 1867, the Newport Opera House Theater has been an integral part of the history, culture and entertainment of Newport. The Opera House Theater was built in 1867 as a first class amenity to the newly finished Perry House Hotel. Commissioned by railroad man and hotelier P.C. Shanahan and designed by architect and builder James Rudolph, the building was a handsome addition to the impressive architecture already ringing Washington Square, the civic and commercial heart of Newport’s stylish post-Civil War era.
A successful theater from the very beginning, the Opera House presented many prominent entertainers, including Douglas Fairbanks, John Barrymore and Mary Pickford, just to name a few. In addition, projects produced by Oscar Hammerstein, George M Cohan and the Shuberts. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass and Duke Ellington all made contributions to the fabric of the city’s cultural life by appearing on the Opera House stage. For over fifty years traditional productions, musical comedies, minstrel shows, burlesque performances, pre-Broadway theatrical openings, important oratories and key civic and community events (including funerals for prominent Newporters!) took place at the elegant and central Opera House Theater. Social causes like the abolition of slavery and women’s rights were also championed from the Opera House stage to large audiences of the time.
The Next 50 Years
Grand Movie Palace
With the emergence of the moving picture industry in the 1920’s, the Opera House entered a new era as a single screen movie palace. The theater’s owner Harry R. Horgan saw that motion pictures were revolutionizing the entertainment industry and in 1929 he 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.
The Last 50 Years
A Triplex Movie Theater
Live shows continued for a time, but the theater eventually became a full time movie house. As the golden age of cinema faded, the Opera House Theater evolved in 1979 into a more modest and modern “twin” theater that could show two films simultaneously. Within a few years, a third theater was created to increase options for customers. The three-screen, theater continued operation until 2010.
Beginning in 2000, a group of Newport community and business leaders began to develop a new vision and use for the historic theater. After careful study of a variety of possible locations in which to establish a live performance theater to serve the region, a charitable non-profit organization, the Newport Performing Arts Center, took action in 2001 to purchase the deteriorating building and rededicate it to its original use as a performing arts theater. In 2002 to 2003, they restored the façade to its original 1867 appearance.
The Opera House Triplex movie theater closed in 2010. With the interior now unused, leaders of the theater and preservationists embarked on an effort in 2011 to strip away late twentieth century layers and additions to the theater to reveal historically significant architecture such as the soaring fifty foot proscenium arch, decorative plaster wall columns, vaulted ceilings, and arched windows.
The Next 50 Years
A Performing Arts Center for Future Generations
Since that time, a thorough assessment of all structural, electrical, plumbing, drainage, roof, HVAC, sewer, water and masonry elements of the building has been made. The Opera House team and their consultants have addressed and made the necessary repairs to stabilize the building to prepare for the final phase — the restoration of the building and the reopening of the Opera House Theater as Newport’s dynamic Performing Arts Center by summer 2018, in the year of its 150th anniversary!
The restoration and revitalization of the Newport Opera House Theater and Performing Arts Center will bring year-round performing arts to downtown Newport – dance, music, theater, comedy, speakers, education, children’s programs, and much more – and restore an architectural treasure in historic Washington Square. It will bring year-round jobs and renewed vitality to our community’s historic downtown.
If you’re interested in a more detailed history of the Opera House Theater’s founding and its early performers click here.