The old Opera House (OOH) in Charles Town is turning 100 years old this year. The theater was Conceived and built in 1910. The first performance was the comedy entitled The Bachelor Girls Federation of Clubs. It was performed by what the paper at the time described “Home talent.” The proceeds of the play went to the Daughters of the Confederacy for the benefit of indigent Confederate Veterans.
In 1910, Annie G. Packette, whose family tree included George Washington. She started raising money in 1909. In all $50,000 was raised to build a “Center for the Arts” A Washington, D.C architect Alfred B. Mullett was employed a to design and build the New Opera House as it was to be called. It was a classic design of the time a 500 seat theatre with fly-space for hanging scenery above the proscenium stage, an orchestra pit and a curved balcony.
For the first few years the Old Opera House had legitimate stage shows as well as musicals and dramatic readings. In 1918 the Columbia Stock Company put on new plays as it advertised “Real Plays for Real People” the price for seats was 25 cents for the seats and 15 cents for seats in the balcony.
When shows were not staged a silver screen was put up and movies were shown. Mr. Hugh Janie, Age 90, who came to see a performance of Miracle on 34th Street, told this reporter that he remembered when he was a kid back in 1920, that he came to the OOH on Saturdays to see his favorite cowboy Tom Mix. Jany noted that the theater looked the same except it was painted differently and the seats were different.
On of the last plays published in the papers was the 1932 show Keynote at the Opera House. The John D. Stradley Players. The paper went on to say that “This is the only stock company in the state and its worth while seeing.” The show was entitled The Keynote and was a Mystery Melodrama.
In 1948 after 30 years of use the stage went dark. The theater sat empty for almost 24 years by 1971 the building was a shell of it self and the roof was missing. The theater had become home to thousands of pigeons. then in 1971 Mr. and Mrs. Augustine Todd, owners of the abandoned opera house on the corner of Liberty and George Streets in Charles Town, agreed to let a small group of dreamers and would-be actors clean up the abandoned building and arouse community interest in theater. Mrs. Todd was the daughter of Annie Packett.
In 1971, 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 old abandoned theatre for local productions. The Todds agreed to the cleaning of the structure. ("Cleaning" included hauling 35 dump-truck loads of pigeon droppings out of the auditorium).
1973 was the year that the building changed hands The Todds generously donated the land and building to the theatre group. The building again came alive as Old Opera House Theatre Company, Inc. a non-profit organization. Its goal - to restore the theatre as a center for the arts, to preserve history, to offer professional theatre, and to train young people in the arts. Carol Gallant who was part of the group that cleaned the OOH said “The town responded—from the women’s club contributing proceeds from a yard sale to a state senator assuring the theater group that support had been pledged by the governor, the Arts and Humanities Council and the State Department of Commerce.”
Restoring the old theatre was started in 1974 with the replacement of the 4,000-square foot ceiling. The walls were re-plastered. A new floor was laid. Finally new seats were installed. An adjoining building was transformed into the Old Opera House Theatre Workshop with offices established upstairs.
A small portion of the opera house structure was converted to a three-quarter round, 90-seat Theater in 1974. Plays could be staged while work continued on the main auditorium. “The Bank of Charles Town made a loan; merchants and citizens throughout the county donated furniture, office equipment, clothing and props,” Gallant said.
Mrs. Lorena Postlethwaite started the Old Opera House Theatre Guild and plans for a consignment “Op “Shop” to raise money. The Guild would also host receptions and help with office duties, and people volunteered, including the late Barbara Hooper who diligently was on-hand in the “office” to manage the chaos of re-building, painting and
the OOH put on a show in its restored auditorium. In October 1976 the Old Opera House staged the first performance in 26 years. Gallant Said “Seats were being nailed in the morning of the opening of “My Fair Lady,” but when the lights came up on Oct. 14, 1976, at 8pm; Charles Town once again had its “Center for the Arts,” thanks to countless citizens who, decades later, shared the dream of Annie G. Packette.”
The OOH has continued that tradition of president fine shows such as Jesus Christ Superstar (1998), The Sound of Music (2001), and Grease (2004) continue to set new records for audience attendance. The offerings of the theatre have continued to increase in diversity and frequency. In 1978, the theatre building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Steve Brewer the Managing director of the Old Opera House thinks the theater will be here for another 100 years. He said “over time, the season has expanded to offer six main stage productions, The New Voice Play Festival, one summer children’s show and theatre camp, and concerts. The OOH has continued to see audience growth. The 2011 season will be an example of that growth.”
There are events planed to celebrate the 100 anniversary of the Old Opera House. The next show at the OOH is Southern Hospitality which will open on February 4 2011.
“I can’t help but remember the coming together of the community and so many people to help keep this theater alive. I just hope that people will always appreciate the gift of Annie G. Packette the Old Opera House,” Gallant said.
James P. Whipple