THE NEWPORT OPERA HOUSE
A Brief History
The original Town Hall and Courthouse was built on this site in the center of Newport in 1872 and destroyed by fire in 1885. The impressive brick building was considered the focal element in Newport, both visually and functionally. The present building was completed in 1886 and featured many upgrades from the former structure. One of the jewels of the new building was the Opera House located on the second floor that housed a stage considered the largest north of Boston. The most up to date stage was designed by J.P. McElpatrick and Son of New York with scenery and permanent fixtures created by P. Dodd, Ackekrman and Company of Brooklyn.
The Newport Opera House soon became the center of entertainment in Sullivan County and patrons came from far away to enjoy the large variety of programs presented. The large hall played host to dances, boxing matches, weddings, political rallies, plays, school graduations, International Shoe Company Ladies’ Minstrel shows, magic shows, dance recitals, Firemen’s Annual Ball, Saturday night movies, Armelia Bloomer’s suffragette rally, John Philip Sousa’s Band, Winter Carnival activities, annual town meetings and elections. The flexible floor plan with large deacons benches allowed the floor to be arranged in any format. A wrap around balcony offered additional seating in more comfortable theatre type seats.
Outstanding performances filled the Opera House for years. In 1892 Miss Mary Howe, Soprano appeared in a “Grand Concert” that reports, “a beautiful hall, free from alcoves and scenery to break the sound, and with no poor seats—every one is a good one.” In 1906 a touring version of Minnie Foster’s UNCLE TOM’S CABIN was presented on the Opera House stage. Friday night Basketball was popular in 1908 and the floor welcomed the “Leans” and the “Fats” as well as the ladies teams the “Reds” and the “Whites.”
1930 saw a mock court trial and Newport’s very own Charlie Jobes both performed and directed community shows throughout the 30’s. Billy B. Van starred in STAR TIME REVUE in 1948 under the direction of Lee Collins. These performances were always sponsored by local merchants who have historically supported the community performances at the Opera House.
The 50’s and the 60’s were not as kind to the historic old building and it soon started to show its age. Suddenly the Opera House was not used as much and events moved to more comfortable locations throughout the community. In the summer of 1967 while serving as an apprentice at the New London Barn Playhouse, Charles H. Massey a college student from North Carolina was shown the building by fellow company member Charlie Jobes. It was this initial introduction to the “grand old hall” that stuck with Massey for years. As fate would have it, he ended up staying in New Hampshire long after his summers at the Barn Playhouse and accepted a teaching position at the Newport High School.
In 1974 he spearheaded an effort to restore and maintain the Newport Opera House as a center for the arts in the community. Soon the Newport Opera House Association was formed as a non-profit group dedicated to the restoration needed to bring the “grand old hall” back to its former glory. Mrs. Bernard (Barbara) Towne was the first President of the organization. Mr. Ronald T. Pfenning was Treasurer and Mrs. Douglas (Nancy) Barton was the secretary. The Board was comprised of Mr. Dietrich Apel, Mrs. Dorothy Bartholomew, Mr. Edward DeCourcy, Mr. G.B. Flint, Jr., Mrs. Harold (Gerry) LaValley, Mrs. Tony (Betty) Maiola, Mr. Charles H. Massey, Mrs. Henry (Beverly) Rodeschin and Miss Jean Rowell. Following over a year of cleaning, painting, floor refinishing and fund raising the hall was ready for its unveiling. The group first produced an original revue entitled TOWN HALL TONIGHT with the express purpose of getting people back into the hall and making them aware of their plans and getting the community involved in the on going restoration project.
Volunteers were the main work force involved in months ahead. Over two hundred community members became involved in the project to reclaim what was to become their pride and joy. The lobby was painted, new carpet was installed and new light fixtures were hung. The hall was painted and all of the woodwork was cleaned and polished. The dressing rooms were cleaned, painted and new electric work was installed. Stage curtains were ordered and new rigging was placed in the fly loft. Theatrical lighting was designed and installed. A beautiful chandelier was found and restored as a gift from the Sturm, Ruger Company. This became the crowning jewel of the newly restored Opera House.
On June 4, 1976 the new hall was unveiled with a production of Meredith Willson’s THE MUSIC MAN, which starred Douglas Barton and Susan Jarvis (Hastings) under the direction of Charles H. Massey with music direction by Mrs. Werner (Gerri) Rudenfeldt. Once the public found their way back to the Opera House they continued to come and productions continued to flourish. In addition to the N.O.H.A. productions the facility became the venue for school concerts and plays, movies, community meetings, voting, dance recitals, lectures, weddings, banquets, dances and high school graduation. In short, it was well on its way to returning to the “golden days” when it really was the center of the community.
In the spring of 1977 Charles H. Massey moved to New York City to pursue a career in the entertainment industry, but the Opera House continued in the hands of the strong board and volunteer base that had been a part of the organization from the start. Ronald T. Pfenning stepped into the Presidency and Betty Richer worked on productions and later became the first Executive Director of the organization. Other strong leaders at that time included Barbara Rosinski, Claudia Ruger, Carolyn Terhune, Eve Spanos, Helen Young, Betty Reid, Jean Rowell, Gerri Rudenfeldt, Sandra Flint, Chris Young, Nathan Richer and Polly Avery. Before long others joined the organization and programming continued to flourish. Gerry LaValley continued to work, as did Eve Spanos, Charlotte Broughton, Kevin Corliss, Tom Campbell, Steve Pare, Susan Hastings, Mary Ann Sarro, Kathy Niboli, Peggy McKinney, Lou Thompson, and Ellen Winkler.
Charlotte Broughton became the President in 1987 and served along with Ellen Soucy as Vice President, Eve Spanos as Secretary and Betty Richer as Treasurer. Board members at this time included Steve Vallandigham, Lou Thompson, Adele Warner, Ella Reney, Ken Wilson, Doug Windsor and Diane Parsons. Within a few years more community members served the organization including: Mary Jane Burns (Cross), Polly Andrews, Joyce Sielewicz, Kathy Niboli and Robert Collins. These years were active ones and the activities included plays, concerts, dances and theatre trips to Boston. Community theatrical productions included: LITTLE MARY SUNSHINE, PLAZA SUITE, YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, GUYS AND DOLLS, THE KING AND I, BRIGADOON and SEE HOW THEY RUN.
The 90s saw many of the same people leading the community arts organization. Betty Richer wore many hats including the one of Executive Director. Other key players at this time included Van Gallup, Dick Bates, Bill Johnson, Bill Harrold, Cindy Johnson, Roland Irish, Jeff Kessler, Ed Amos, Maratha Bristol, Judy Andrews, Jody Cooper and Jeff Kessler. Many outstanding community productions were staged including: GODSPELL, CAROUSEL, THE MUSIC MAN, HARVEY, MAN OF LA MANCHA and THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER.
Soon Betty Maiola reentered the picture along with Vickie Carl, Erna McCormick, Cynthia Baron, George McHugh, Elaine Lascher, Kenneth Berkov and Jay Gamble. Betty had been on the original board of directors and was well acquainted with the community, which made the match perfect for the organization and the town. With Betty as the new President of the Board, Bill Wightman became the new Executive Director. Bill introduced a popular series called “Jazz on a Sunday Afternoon” as well as a youth Shakespeare program. A wide variety of entertainment filled the hall ranging from stand up comics to dance groups and local jazz artists. Wightman’s cabaret style atmosphere became a major draw in the old hall. Community theatre continued and Wightman convinced Charles H. Massey to return and direct OLIVER! in 2003. Under Wightman and Maiola’s watchful eyes many improvements were made in the facility and the organization remained very healthy.
Betty Maiola convinced Charles H. Massey to return to the Opera House as the Executive Director and Meg Cowan joined the association as Office Manager. Remaining on the board were Vickie Carl, Erna McCormick, Cynthia Baron, Jay Gamble, Marie Pittorino and George McHugh. They were soon joined by Brenda Gauthier, Milton Hastings, Susan Hastings, Marilyn Brannigan, Lori Barnes, Francetta Raymond, Joanne Kersey, Don Trenholm, Deb Cossingham, David Hoyt, Laura Kessler, Ann MacConnell, Mal McLaughlin, Stacy Tyo-Bartlett and Bobbi Violette. Lori Barnes became the President of the organization in 2005 and continued to encourage new programming as well as building a stronger support system through an aggressive membership drive. It was under Barnes’ leadership that the NOHA joined forces with the Library Arts Center to sponsor the Annual Sunshine Town Social, which became a major fundraiser for both arts organizations. Under Massey’s leadership community theatre became a major draw and a fall dinner theatre production as well as a spring musical were important parts of the season’s offerings. A third production of THE MUSIC MAN (with a cast of 96) was produced in the spring of 2007. The Halloween Masquerade Party featuring the music of “Last Kid Picked” became one of the most popular events of the year.
In June of 2019, former NOHA Office Manager, Meg Cowan came back to her old desk at the Newport Opera House but this time in the role of Executive Director. Along with addressing the financial health of the organization, she is picking up where she and Charles Massey left off by encouraging young people to experience the most collaborative of the Arts, namely Theatre, and welcoming back veterans of the Opera House stage who have given so much of themselves in years past. Their knowledge and expertise is a treasure that will live on through talented newcomers and will knit past, present and future together.
The Newport Opera House Association continues to serve the greater Lake Sunapee community through the generous contributions from local businesses and individual citizens. Without this support, the organization would be unable to produce the wide variety of entertainment for the entire community at affordable prices. Help to keep the dream alive—become a member today.