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Historic Opera Houses Still Entertaining in 21st Century

The New York City Metropolitan Opera House. The Sydney Opera House. The Stonington Opera House?


While they may bear the same title, Maine’s many opera houses were never in the world-renowned category of the Metropolitan or Sydney Opera Houses. Maine’s buildings, built in the 19th century, took the name “Opera House” to add an element of glamour and respectability to their entertainments. “They are called opera houses to indicate a level of reputable entertainment. In the later nineteenth century, the term theater did not suggest wholesome entertainment,” said Michael Goebel-Bain, National Register and Survey Coordinator at the Maine Historic Commission.


Opera houses popped up all over Maine from the mid-1870s until World War I, including in small fishing towns along the coast. Among those, the Stonington, Camden, and Boothbay Harbor Opera Houses are still going strong.


Stonington Opera House

The Stonington Opera House was built in 1912 as a performing space for musical acts, theater, community gatherings and eventually, moving pictures.


In 1886 Charles Russ built the Music Hall overlooking Stonington Harbor. His grand structure could seat up to 1,000 people and quickly became the cultural center of Stonington, which was thriving due to the granite quarry on nearby Crotch Island. He later expanded the building and renamed it the Stonington Opera House. Unfortunately, it burned to the ground in 1910.


The first Opera House (left) and The Opera House in 1912 (right).

Photos courtesy Opera House Arts.


Dr. B. Lake Noyes and others rebuilt on the same site in 1912. The new building wasn’t as large as its predecessor; it seated 250 people in folding chairs that could be removed for dances and basketball games, and was used for local theater, graduations, and recitals. In 1918, Noyes started showing popular silent movies in the Opera House.


Local dentist Lewis S. Tewksbury and his partner George H. Noyes purchased the building in 1928. During the Great Depression they showed two movies a night and also featured live vaudeville and musical acts. Tewksbury did away with the folding chairs and purchased real seats still used in the theater today. The Opera House also served as Stonington’s town hall until 1951.


In 1962 Tewksbury sold the building, the seats were removed, and the theater became a roller skating rink. It passed through several other owners and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. In the 1990s, however, it was put up for sale and sat unused for a number of years.


Finally the dilapidated Opera House caught the eye of Linda Nelson, Judith Jerome, and two other women from New York City. They purchased the building in 1999 and began a systemic restoration, adding up-to-date bathrooms, a modern heating system, and fire exits, and refurbishing the stage and seats. The building reopened in 2000 as a non-profit business, Opera House Arts.


Since then, the organization has presented year-round entertainment, bringing people from near and far to Stonington. Opera House Arts offers original theater, music, and other live performances featuring professional performers and homegrown talent, as well as an annual Shakespeare play, an international jazz festival, community play readings, and even an original children’s opera. A successful 2008 fundraising campaign allowed Opera House Arts to build an 800-square-foot scene shop, separate from the theater itself, dedicated to building sets; and add additional bathrooms and a new lobby overlooking Stonington harbor. Today the Stonington Opera House continues its long career as the cultural center of Stonington.


Camden Opera House

Towns in Maine were largely built of wood in the 19th century. Unfortunately, that led to periodic catastrophic fires. It was just such a fire that destroyed the business area of Camden in 1892. After the fire, Camden businessmen decided to build a new building entirely of brick downtown to house not only an Opera House but also stores, town offices, businessmen’s organizations, and a post office.


The Camden Village Corporation sold bonds to finance its construction. The corporation hired Elmer I. Thomas, a famous Maine architect, to design the building. Willis Carleton, a lifelong resident of Rockport who painted stage scenery in New York for many years, decorated the interior. The elegant building, centered around a broad, two-story staircase, features a large auditorium with a soaring arch, balcony and loge boxes highlighted in gold and white, much like a true opera house. The Camden Opera House can claim that title: on opening night in June 1894, the Boston Opera Company performed with a live orchestra.

The elegant interior of the Camden Opera House auditorium. C.O.H. photo.


Camden’s first town meeting was held at the Opera House in 1895. It offered shows, from the 1908 melodrama called “How Women Ruin Men” to acts by Mae West, Tallulah Bankhead, and Lillian Gish.. Movies and dances were held in the building in the 1920s, as well as local school plays, speaking contests, and graduations. In the 1930s, philanthropist and Curtis Institute founder Mary Curtis Bok donated funds to help the town maintain the Opera House. In 1932 the post office closed and became the Camden town offices.


In 1986, the Camden Opera House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1993, it was completely refurbished with financial support of banking giant of MBNA. Today the Camden Opera House is owned and managed by the town of Camden and offers a wide variety of entertainment, as well as the Camden Conference and the Camden International Film Festival.


Boothbay Harbor Opera House

The Boothbay Opera House was built in 1894 by the local Knights of Pythias, a fraternal order begun in 1864. The building was designed by the famous Portland architectural team of Frances H. Fassett and his son Edward F. Fassett and features the Knights of Pythias crest on the front of the building. From its inception, the Boothbay Harbor Opera House was designed to function as a place of entertainment but also as the lodge for the Knights and for the local Freemasons. The first two floors of the building held the auditorium, lobby, and backstage rooms. The third floor was for the two fraternal organizations.



The Boothbay Harbor Opera House in its heyday (left), courtesy of the Opera House at Boothbay Harbor.

The Boothbay Knights of Pythias (right), courtesy of the Boothbay Region Historical Society.


Constructing the three story building was an expression of the success enjoyed by Boothbay Harbor, which separated about this time from the town of Boothbay. Boothbay Harbor had become a destination for summer “visitors” in the late 1800s while also prospering as a fishing port. Once the Opera House was finished, musicians and theatrical troupes would arrive by ferry from Wiscasset and Portland for weekly performances. The Knights and Freemasons held their meetings and social gatherings while Boothbay Harbor town meetings were held in the auditorium right up to the mid-1970s. School and amateur plays were staged, traveling vaudeville and music shows took place, dances and concerts were held, and movies were shown when they became popular.


As the years progressed, however, the building’s size and maintenance expenses began to weigh heavily on the town. Eventually all the organizations that had used the Opera House, including town government, built their own buildings elsewhere. By the late 1990s, the Opera House faced an uncertain future. At the time it was privately owned and nearly impossible to maintain. 

But in 2003 a group of Boothbay Harbor residents decided it was time to save the building, which was rumored to be slated for demolition. Kickstarted by a wildly successful benefit concert by musician Jackson Brown, the Opera House at Boothbay Harbor, a newly-formed non-profit organization, purchased the building from John and Sarah Abbe. Steady fundraising through the years helped the organization slowly but surely bring back the building and its performance hall. In 2008 the building was on the National Registry of Historic Places. Today the building is the site throughout the year of local events, such as prom dances, school concerts, and the popular Gingerbread House Spectacular, as well as national and international music and theater.


They may not have showcased opera performances, but these venerable Opera Houses were the cultural beacons of the coast when they were constructed and they remain so today.

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