When the curtain went up on Dec. 28, 1867 at the Newport Opera House, the patrons in Washington Square basked in the drama, “Lucretia Borgia,” and delighted in a farce presented by the Howard Athenaeum of Boston.
Two years later, the man who built and owned the theater, railroad man and hotelier Patrick Shanahan, would die in a Long Island train wreck. But the magnificent structure he commissioned that has hosted some of the most famous performers of the past two centuries has stood for 148 more years, and is celebrating its 150th anniversary. Soon it will aim its searchlights into the night sky with a planned reopening in 2018, following an $18.5 million renovation. It had been closed since 2010, while the dream to renovate was formalized.
Since 1867, the Opera House has been an integral part of the history, culture and entertainment of Newport, initially as a first-class amenity to the newly-finished Perry House Hotel. Designed by architect and builder James Rudolph, the building was a handsome addition to the impressive architecture already ringing Washington Square.
A successful theater from the beginning, the Opera House presented a cornucopia of entertainers, many of whom by now are forgotten by history. An assortment of playbills, posters and placards preserved by the Newport Historical Society display a thrilling array of what once was, including sensational and unusual acts seldom imagined today.
Top show business names were billed from 1868 on, with productions of “Norwood!” and “Under the Gaslight,” both performed by the notable Boston Theatre Company under the management of J.B. Booth, brother of Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth, President Abraham Lincoln’s assassin.
Archives tell us that the theater’s Feb. 22, 1868 playbill included a matinee of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
The great actor Edwin Forrest played the opera house in 1869. His personal feud with William Charles Macready had caused the Astor Place Riot of 1849 in New York City.
William “Buffalo Bill” Cody performed there in 1878 and 1882, while Margaret Mitchell performed her own play, “Maggie, The Midget,” in 1888, and Anna Eva Fay, a stage mentalist and medium, produced stage phenomena similar to that of Houdini, and worked on the border between stage magic and Spiritualism. She would lift and play instruments, including pianos, without touching them.
Maud Banks, stage actress and women’s rights champion, who gave speeches about the creative liberation of women toward the end of the 19th century, appeared 1888 in the play, “Her Evil Genius.” Thomas Keane, as famous on stage in his day as Lawrence Olivier would be half a century later, entertained Newport audiences with extracts from Mark Twain’s newest work, “Roughing It,” about his escapades in the Wild West. Twain had visited in 1875 on behalf of the Bellevue Dramatic Club.
“We just discovered that Oscar Wilde performed here,” said Robert Ensign, communications and marketing director for the Opera House. “The Newport Historical Society has provided us with some very exciting information and posters to study and display. Some invaluable, historical information.”
Author Harriet Beecher Stowe, conductor John Philip Sousa, film stars Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and John Barrymore also appeared, while projects produced by Oscar Hammerstein, George M. Cohan and the Shuberts were staged.
“And a 27-year-old rising star named Duke Ellington played here,” Ensign said.
With the emergence of the moving picture industry in the 1920s, 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 its remaking 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.
In 1979, the theater evolved into a modern “twin” theater that showed two films simultaneously. Within a few years, a third theater was created.
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 possible locations in which to establish a live performance theater, a charitable nonprofit organization, the Newport Performing Arts Center, took action in 2002 to purchase the deteriorating building and rededicate it to its original use. By 2003, they had restored the façade to its original 1867 appearance.
Leaders of the theater and preservationists embarked on an effort in 2011 to strip away late 20th-century layers and additions to reveal historically significant architecture, such as the soaring 50-foot proscenium arch, decorative plaster wall columns, vaulted ceilings and arched windows.
“That plaster saved the arch with no damage or exposure,” Ensign said. “If it wasn’t there, we couldn’t have saved it as we are. The plaster preserved it.”
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. As Ensign walks around the gutted interior, wearing a hard hat, noting vestiges and pieces of the theater’s glorious past, he smiles, knowing what will be once again. “The interior is being rebuilt [to look as it did] in 1929,” he said.
“Our goal is to open in 2018. We’re looking forward to it,” he said. “It is such a rich history of performance and that’s the legacy we’re hoping to revive.”
Brenda Nienhouse, executive director of the Newport Opera House Theater and Performing Arts Center, agrees. “We are reviving a brilliant legacy of performance and the Opera House’s role as the center of arts and culture in downtown Newport,” she said. “This historic Newport gem of Washington Square will shine bright again!”
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