Bringing arts to Charles Town for more than a century
by Tricia Lynn Strader
In an age when everything changes almost daily, one fixture of Charles Town has remained constant. The Old Opera House presents six main stage productions, a summer youth production, a one-act play festival, and a ballet every other year. It has been at North George Street since the dawn of another century.
Prior to the early 1900s, the second and third floors of the Charles Washington Hall were used as a small theater. But in 1910, Annie G. Packette, whose family tree included George Washington, raised $50,000 and employed a Washington, D.C., architect to design and construct the New Opera House. It was a classic theater structure, complete with flyspace for hanging scenery above the proscenium stage, an orchestra pit and a rarely seen curved balcony.
The main theatre then seated 500 people and lived through two wars, a depression and the advent of radio. The large “P” seen by visitors at the top of the proscenium arch is a tribute to Annie Packette. “It’s one of the oldest theaters in West Virginia still operating,” says Steven Brewer, managing and artistic director. “One unique feature is the carved balcony. For Annie to raise $50,000 in 1910 is pretty impressive.”
He believes the area was rich in artistic culture. “The Apollo (in Martinsburg) is one year newer. The Shepherdstown Opera House is about the same age. The area must have been quite vibrant and interested in arts to invest that kind of money at the time.”
The first show – performed in Charles Town’s New Opera House on February 14, 1911 – was a comedy given by homegrown talent and titled “Bachelor Girls’ Federation of Clubs.” Proceeds from the play went to the Daughters of the Confederacy for the benefit of indigent confederate veterans of the country.
From the 1940s to the 1970s, the theater was dormant, as were many theaters after the emergence of “talkie” films. At various times since, areas of the building and an adjacent structure dating to the 1890s were used as apartments, a floral shop, movie theater and tavern. The former auditorium became a haven for pigeons.
In 1971, there was hope for the aging structure. Dixie Kilham, owner of Hilltop House in Harpers Ferry, and Robert and Diane Angel contacted the owners of the building, Mr. and Mrs. Augustine Todd, about using the theater for local productions. The Todds agreed at least to the cleaning of the structure. That cleaning out included hauling 35 dump-truck loads of pigeon droppings out of the auditorium. Once the building was clean, a group of local citizens joined together to form The Old Opera House Theatre Company, which was officially incorporated on May 7, 1973. It is a nonprofit. Its first mission was to restore the building, while preserving history, in the hopes of eventually offering theater and theatrical training for young people. Later that year in July, the Todds saw the spirit and dedication of the OOHTC. Brewer says they turned over the property for $1.00.
Fundraising drives produced a match to a Benedum grant to restore the theater. The 4,000-square-foot ceiling was re-plastered, a new floor was laid, and new seats were installed.
The adjoining pool hall was transformed into the Old Opera House Theatre Workshop with rehearsal space and offices established upstairs. This is where the initial performances were held.
In October 1976, the “new” Old Opera House opened its main stage doors to the public with a production of “My Fair Lady.” In 1978, the theater building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The theater now seats 328 and often sells out, especially for musical productions. Since then, the offerings of the theater have continued to increase in diversity and frequency. They include musicals, murder mysteries, farce, thrillers and comedy.
Brewer says, “Our productions are pretty eclectic. We have six main shows, but the titles aren’t necessarily household names. We do two musicals a year, a youth production, and host the New Voice Play Festival. Some shows are for adults only.
We’re doing ‘The Great American Trailer Park Musical’ now. Other shows, like ‘The Music Man’ and our youth production this summer of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ are for all ages. We have something for all ages.” Besides their variety of productions, Brewer credits their longevity to not only one, but three volunteer groups.
“I’ve worked in community theater a long time,” he says. “This is the first one I know that had its own thrift shop (the Op Shop) that sells secondhand clothing and donates the proceeds. And we have two active support groups. The Theatre Guild has 60 volunteers who hold one to two fundraisers a year. The newest group of volunteers, the OOHLaLas assists with productions, studio events and helps with fundraising. They are mostly ladies.”
He says the Old Opera House Theatre Company board of directors is very competent. “For 40 years, they have been cautious with the finances and at the same time see the value of having an active, vibrant theatre in Charles Town. They kept it going in recent years when several theater companies couldn’t maintain in the economic slump. They know how to balance that and move forward to take chances.”
There’s even a dance/music studio. The owner of the Charles Town Dance Studio had been renting space in the Old Opera House for dance classes. In 2008, the owner decided to retire.
Rather than finding a new dance studio to use the space, the Old Opera House elected to start their own studio programming for children and adults. The Old Opera House Arts Centre now teaches classes in acting, dance (ballet, jazz, tap, hip hop, and Broadway-style dance), and voice.
The Jean Heiler Gallery, on the lower level of the Old Opera House, presents the works of local visual artists. Gallery shows are coordinated with each of the Old Opera House’s main stage productions. On the first weekend in August of each year, the Old Opera House Summertime Arts Soirée presents the work of up to 12 artists throughout the theater for a two-day art showing.
The first annual “New Voice Play Festival,” featuring non-published new plays, was begun in 2001. This one-act playwriting competition attracts some of the country’s most gifted new playwrights. After reading through up to 100 plays, a committee of judges narrows the field down to four finalists. These are presented on the Old Opera House stage for one weekend in late June, and the audience selects the winner of the annual festival.
Information about current and past shows, and special events is on the Old Opera House website: www.oldoperahouse.org. The Old Opera House is located at 204 N. George Street in Charles Town, W.Va. They can also be reached by phone: 304-725-4420.