A Brief History of the Stonington Opera House
The Opera House you see today is the result of more than 100 years of community history, events, and restoration. In 1999, it was rescued from 7 years of abandonment and decay by Opera House Arts, a 501 (C) 3 nonprofit organization established specifically to restore this historic building to its original purpose as a central community institution.
Originally constructed in 1893 by Charles B. Russ as a dance hall, the building grew quickly with the town as it boomed with its granite quarries to a total population of app. 5,000. In 1895 it was expanded from its original (and current) location to Main Street, a scene tower and balconies were added, and at the turn of the century the building—now an Opera House--seated upwards of 1,000 people and hosted national touring shows which arrived via steamboat from Rockland. The majestic building burned to the ground in 1910 the night the first fire hydrants were operational—a fact which saved the rest of the town.
The Opera House has been a multi-purpose building from its inception. Vaudeville, Chautauqua performances, plays, dances, and even
have taken place in the life of the Opera House. It was also the Town Hall until 1951, and the high school basketball court until 1947. Graduations and marriages all took place here.
Along with these uses, in 1918 the Stonington Opera House was issued a license to "use cinematographic apparatus." A Powers cameragraph projection machine was installed and silent movies began to be shown. In 1929 the roof was modified to accommodate the new "talkies" machines, and in the 1940s massive carbon burning Simplex projectors were installed.
With steel on the rise and granite declining, so was the town’s population. When the Opera House was rebuilt after the 1910 fire, it seated only 250 people in folding chairs that could be removed so that the hall could be used for dances and basketball games, as well as theater, high school graduation, and recitals.
Silent movie projectors arrived in 1918 shortly after the birth of the movie business: the upright piano used to accompany these remains in the hall. “Talkies” came in the 1930s, and in the 1940s the beautiful seats you see today were bolted to the floor, making it more difficult to use the hall for dances—although during the 1960s the seats were removed and the Opera House was used for roller skating.
Three young entrepreneurs purchased the building in 1979 and saved it from weather damage by completely tearing off and replacing the lower roof. But the rise of home video, the decreasing year-round population, and a changing culture lead them to place the building for sale in the late 1980s. The last full summer of movies, prior to OHA's grand 2000 reopening, was in 1992.