The Rich History of the Newport Opera House Theater

THE FIRST 50 YEARS:
LIVE ENTERTAINMENT

For over 150 years, 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 surrounding Washington Square, the civic and commercial heart of Newport’s stylish post-Civil War era.

Perry House hotel rooms, overlooking Washington Square, extended across the front of the Opera House building

 

An 1875 Program – with an amazing array of acts!

A successful theater from the very beginning, the Opera House presented many prominent entertainers, including Douglas Fairbanks, John Barrymore and Mary Pickford. 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 more than 50 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.


1919 Silent Film “Sandy Burke at the U-Bar-U” showed at the Opera House.

Frederick Douglas American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman spoke from the Opera House stage in 1875

 


THE NEXT 50 YEARS:
A 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. In 1929, he renovated 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 new Opera House seated 1000 people

Program printed on linen – from the 1929 grand re-opening as a cinema palace

 

Hand-painted 1930s movie posters – from the walls of the Opera House annex building.

 


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 showed movies until 2010.
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 for a new 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. From 2002 to 2003, the nonprofit restored the façade to its original 1867 appearance.

The brickwork and arched windows of the 1867 theater were covered by modern facade.

 

 

The Opera House was sub-divided into three small theaters – 2 at orchestra level, and one in the balcony.

Thanks to a grant from the Alletta McBean Charitable Foundation, the tri-plex movie theater intra-structure was removed .

Thanks to a grant from the Alletta McBean Charitable Foundation, the tri-plex movie theater intra-structure was removed .

 


THE FUTURE: NEWPORT PERFORMING ARTS CENTER

Since that time, Stage I of the Opera House transformation has been accomplished. The historic 1867 Opera House has been saved and the fragile infrastructure has been completely reinforced to prepare for building a state-of-the-art theater. This effort was a massive and complex engineering feat, and the outcome is a theater rebuilt to last.

The nonprofit’s new leadership is currently revising and updating plans, and preparing for Phase II of the project. It’s an exciting time! The Newport Performing Arts Center will bring year-round performing arts to downtown Newport, Rhode Island – dance, music, theater, comedy, speakers, education, children’s programs, and much more – and restore an architectural treasure. It will bring new jobs and renewed vitality to our community’s historic downtown. As a stakeholder in economic revitalization, NPAC will be the beating heart of the performing arts for our local community and our visitors around the world.

Extensive lead and asbestos abatement

 

New structural steel installed to support rooftop lobby, terrace and gardens.

Excavation of old stage to prepare for new extended stage with pass-under tunnel, storage, and tri-level hydraulic pit lift.


New extended stage installed, new stage wall constructed, and balcony rebuilt for optimal site lines, and ADA accessibility.

Excavation and construction of the foundations for the Annex Production building – including dressing rooms and freight elevator.