Large old wooden buildings that last for 100 years can be rare, and institutions that last for more than 100 even more so. Our “magic box” of an Opera House celebrated its centennial in 2012--but that was 100 years only of the current building. The Opera House you see today is the third “amusement hall,” as it was originally called, on this site, and wears the patina of more than 100 years of community history, events, and restoration.
Originally constructed in 1886 by Charles B. Russ as a music and dance hall, the building grew with the town as its granite quarries boomed and Stonington swelled to a total population of approximately 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 officially titled Stonington Opera House—seated upwards of 1,000 people and hosted national touring shows that arrived via steamboat from Rockland. This majestic building burned to the ground in 1910, the night the first fire hydrants were operational—a fact that saved the rest of the town.
With steel on the rise and granite in decline, so was the town’s population. When the town’s most famous citizen, the Renaissance man Dr. B. Lake Noyes, undertook the charge to rebuild the Opera House after the 1910 fire, it seated only 250 people in folding chairs that could be removed for dances and basketball games, as well as theater, high school graduation, and recitals.
The Opera House has been a multi-purpose building from its inception. Vaudeville, Chautauqua performances, plays, dances, high school graduation, and even basketball games have all found a home here. It was the Town Hall until 1951, and the high school basketball court until 1947.
In 1918, shortly after the birth of the movie business, Noyes’ Stonington Opera Company was issued a license to “use cinematographic apparatus,” and movies have been shown at the Opera House ever since. By the 1940s, the heyday of the movies thanks in large part to the news-sharing convention of News Reels shown prior to feature films during the war, the town’s dentist and another Renaissance figure, Dr. Lewis G. Tewksbury, oversaw a full schedule of films, two shows a night for most nights of the week, while continuing to book vaudeville acts. He purchased and bolted to the floor the beautiful Roosevelt seats you see today, making it more difficult to use the hall for dances. The rise of television in the late 1950s brought on the first decline in the movie business, and after Tewksbury sold the building in 1962, 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 led them to place the building for sale again in the late 1980s. The last full summer of movies, prior to OHA’s grand 2000 reopening, was in 1992.
In 1999, the building was rescued from years of abandonment and decay by Opera House Arts (OHA), a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization established specifically to restore this historic building to its original purpose as a central community institution. OHA restored the School Street wing of the building, which had fallen off over the years, stuffed the building with insulation, and added an energy-efficient propane heating system.
Led by the founding directors of Opera House Arts, Carol Estey, Judith Jerome, Linda Pattie, and Linda Nelson, the Opera House re-opened again year-round, with programs 52 weeks a year, including theater, music, dance, film, and community events.