Five years after the city’s historic Opera House closed its doors, a cast of luminaries treaded its boards Monday to formally begin restoring the theater to its former luster.
With the temperature outside warmer than that inside the entertainment center on Washington Square, more than 100 people turned out for an indoor ceremonial groundbreaking. Gov. Gina Raimondo, Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano joined Brenda Nienhouse, executive director of the Opera House, and Alison Vareika, chairwoman of its board, to pitch symbolic shovelfuls of sand into a wheelbarrow to begin the $14 million, 21-month renovation project, which is expected to be completed in December 2017.
“This is an architectural and historic treasure,” Vareika said following the ceremony. “It’s going to be a performing arts center that everyone — tourists and residents — can take advantage of.”
Paiva Weed said the finished center will be a smaller version of the nationally renowned Providence Performing Arts Center. She was one of the prime movers behind the successful 2014 Cultural Facilities Bond referendum that funneled $4.2 million into the Opera House project. The newly renovated theater will be a lynchpin tying together the sometimes-fractured districts of lower Broadway and upper Thames Street, Paiva Weed said.
“The cultural economy is a growing economy, and the arts play a vital role in the entire economy,” Paiva Weed said. “This investment reflects both of those priorities.”
“Today, we mark the rebirth of the Opera House,” Napolitano said. “This will become a center for year-round performing arts in the hub of Newport to act as an educational catalyst and economic driver for generations to come.”
The Opera House made its debut on Dec. 28, 1867, with the opera “Lucretia Borgia,” performed by a Boston company. Over the years some pretty big names have graced its stage.
In the early years, not long after the end of the Civil War, the Boston Theatre Company, under the management of J.B. Booth — brother of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth — performed two productions at the Opera House. Noted producers like Oscar Hammerstein and George M. Cohan brought new plays there using Newport audiences as a test market, and Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, John Barrymore and some of the world’s best-known entertainers performed at the Opera House.
During America’s celebration of its centennial, the speeches in Newport were delivered from the Opera House stage.
When the motion picture industry began flourishing in the 1920s, the building was renovated into a movie theater. It was quite successful until the 1980s, when the building was transformed into a tri-plex theater. While that may have been a good financial move at the time, it covered up the building’s historic architectural features.
Faced with the prospect of installing a very expensive sprinkler system in September 2010, the building’s tenant decided to turn off the theater’s lights.
The nonprofit Newport Performing Arts Center had acquired the building in 2000. Two years later it began a restoration of the brick facade. But when the tenant vacated the premises, the group had to double its efforts to raise the money to refurbish the rest of the building.
Besides the cultural addition to downtown Newport, the renovated Opera House will provide an economic stimulus, Paiva Weed said. There already are 357 arts-related businesses in Newport, she said, representing nearly 6 percent of all businesses in the city. Those arts-related businesses provide about 1,200 jobs, Pavia Weed said, and the Opera House restoration will provide jobs for another 100 workers.
The Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth calculated the renovation would have a $15 million economic impact on the area. Once the curtain opens, performances at the theater will generate an additional $1.6 million in direct and indirect economic activity to the city, the center determined.
“It’s going to get people to work right away,” Raimondo said, “but also for years to come providing jobs for our tourism industry. It’s vital to have a thriving arts and cultural center. That’s a deep and abiding historical strength for Rhode Island.”
Once completed, the renovated theater will seat 700 people and feature an enlarged stage measuring 30 feet deep. The historically significant proscenium arch over the stage will be 32 feet high.
“Creating a venue for the arts is an important part of the cultural economy of Newport,” Sen. Reed said. “It will be a source of strength to this great community.”
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