Jamestowners Playing Pivotal Role in Newport Opera House Theater’s Revival

(The Jamestown Press, By Ryan Gibbs)

The South’s surrender at Appomattox Court House still was lingering when Rhode Islanders began laying the groundwork for the Newport Opera House Theater.

The plush venue, which was the brainchild of railroad tycoon P.C. Shanahan, was built to attract America’s brightest stage performers.

For six decades, the Tuoro Street theater succeeded in its aspirations, introducing residents of Narragansett Bay to worldclass entertainment, from Broadway to burlesque. By the 1930s, however, the motion picture era had arrived, paving the way for the Opera House’s transformation into a movie theater.

Now, 150 years later, the theater’s brass is masterminding a return to the glory days, with a handful of Jamestowners having an integral part in that resurgence.

Jamestown Press Newport Opera House Theater & Performing Arts Center

Left to right: Alix Flood, Barry Cook, Ken Newman, Carla Cook, Anne Livingston, Tenley van der Wal, Barbara Sims, Cindy Trask, Sue Maffei Plowden, Chris Cannon, Brenda Nienhouse and Liz Drayton during a tour of the Opera House last week. All are Jamestowners except for Sims, Nienhouse and Drayton.

Construction underway

To convert the venue into a 700-seat performing arts center, the building has been undergoing interior renovations since the beginning of 2016. The work is being overseen by the Newport Performing Arts Center, a nonprofit organization paid for through historic tax credits and the 2014 Green Economy Bond. Another slice comes from private donations, including money from nearly 50 Jamestowners. Sue Maffei Plowden, of Calvert Place, is among that contingency.

“There’s a need for a place like this,” she said.

During a tour last week, Plowden and eight other Jamestown supporters saw the facility in mid-facelift, visiting the theater floor, the upstairs lobby and the balcony. They also were briefed on the construction’s status. The general contractors, Farrar & Associates Inc., are currently installing the foundation that will support a new 40-foot stage. According to Brenda Nienhouse, executive director of the Opera House, workers will then lay the foundation for a new annex.

When it re-opens in 2018, motion pictures no longer will dominate the theater’s landscape. Instead, the venue will host live entertainment, including theater productions and music concerts.

Racquet Road’s Anne Livingston, a board member and treasurer of the Opera House, said trips to Providence no longer will be necessary for Jamestowners with a taste for professional drama. With typical traffic, the theater is less than 10 minutes from the Newport Pell Bridge toll plaza.

“It’s fun to go to Trinity Rep, but we need something here for us to enjoy,” she said.

The nine Jamestowners who toured the construction site are day-dreaming about the theater’s future capacity and capabilities.

Avenue B’s Ken Newman would like to see talented troupes from across the county, like the Island Moving Company, take advantage of the space.

“It’s going to be a huge boon to the regional economy, to the arts and to the area” he said. “It’s difficult for some of these companies if they don’t have a large place of residence.”

Alix Flood, who has been a board member since 2008, said she’s passionate about the project because it will serve the community two-fold. “There’s a building that needs to be preserved and saved,” she said. “The programming is really going to enliven, not only culturally, but economically.”

Staging a comeback

Although the shift from film to performing arts is new to virtually every Jamestowner alive today, it represents a return to the theater’s roots.

From 1867 through the turn of the 20th century, household names graced the stylish James Rudolph-designed venue. Shows produced by Oscar Hammerstein and the Shubert brothers were featured alongside performances by Douglas Fairbanks, John Barrymore and Mary Pickford. Stage visits by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass and Duke Ellington added to the theater’s lore. Even Buffalo Bill Cody performed his “Wild West” show there.

With films emerging following World War I, however, the building was converted into a movie theater in 1929, although a stage still was maintained for the occasional vaudeville performance. Since then, programming has leaned toward the big screen. By 1979, a second movie screen was installed. The theater purchased its third screen in the ’80s and a third party began operating the multiplex.

That company vacated the Opera House in August 2010, which is when the theater’s leadership became interested in the revival.

Once finished, the interior, including the lobbies and theater, will be restored to its pre-1929 appearance. At first, the board didn’t think that would be possible, but when workers began disassembling the multiplex, the original proscenium arches were found behind false walls.

“It was really amazing to see all the beautiful plasterwork,” Nienhouse said. “We’re so lucky that so much of it is still intact.”

The Newport Performing Arts Center was established in 1999 to restore the theater’s exterior to its 1867 facade. Once the movie theater went out of business, the charity began fundraising for the interior restoration. Construction began in February 2016 following a groundbreaking ceremony with Gov. Gina Raimondo and U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, a Jamestown resident.

“This theater has always been an integral part of Newport’s economy, community and cultural life,” said Liz Drayton, spokeswoman for the theater. “Bringing it back to its origins as a performing arts center is really exciting for the spirits in this building.”

Although no date has been set for the grand re-opening, Drayton said the organization is crossing its fingers for the end of summer 2018.

Plowden is optimistic. “It’s in good hands,” she said.

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