NEWPORT, R.I. — In its heyday, the stage at Newport’s Opera House hosted everything from performances of vaudeville and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to appearances by abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Now, one of the nation’s oldest opera houses is undergoing an $18 million renovation after spending decades as a movie theater. The nonprofit group that owns it hopes to make it into a centerpiece of live performance and a gathering place for the seaside resort town already known around the world for its jazz and folk festivals.
The Newport Opera House Theater and Performing Arts Center is due to open in December, in celebration of its 150th anniversary. The people behind it hope the 700-seat venue will become a new destination for audiences and artists, and provide a place to keep the music alive in Newport year-round.
“There really isn’t anything like this. It’s totally unique,” Alison Vareika, chair of the center’s board, said during a tour of the building.
While thousands of music lovers flock to the city every summer for the Newport Folk Festival and Newport Jazz Festival, there are limited venues for live music, said Jay Sweet, the festivals’ executive producer. Because of those limitations, they are always on the hunt for more places that can host musicians during a festival weekend, he said.
“We could definitely use more capacity to explore other unique events,” Sweet said, adding that a venue with the history of the Opera House behind it is an added attraction. “Having it set up specifically for music is a real positive for the city.”
Opera houses were built across the country in the mid- to late 1800s as a dedicated performance space used by the town for all kinds of public gatherings, according to Ken Stein, president and CEO of the League of Historic American Theatres. They later gave way to vaudeville houses, then movie palaces, he said.
The Newport Opera House opened in 1867, two years after the Civil War ended. In the decades after, actors such as John Barrymore and Mary Pickford, known for her silent films, were among those to take the stage. In 1929, it was fully renovated and began showing movies. Fifty years later, it was renovated again into a three-screen theater.
The current project got going in 1999, when a committee of local civic leaders determined that the city needed a performing arts center, Vareika said. They later purchased the theater, and in 2010, it was closed down.
The space has been gutted and is slowly being rebuilt. Being added are modern bathrooms, up-to-date accessibility, concessions and even a room that will allow parents to bring crying babies and still watch the show. A roof deck will look out over Newport Harbor and will be accessible year-round.
Changes are also coming backstage. Workers are currently digging a tunnel that will allow performers to cross from one side of the stage to the other during performances.
“We’re not really changing it,” Vareika said. “But we’re adapting it for 2017.”
Vareika has been in talks with Curt Columbus, artistic director for Providence’s Trinity Repertory Company, which has been a launching pad for celebrated actors such as Viola Davis and Richard Jenkins. The two said they could envision occasionally bringing Trinity productions to Newport as a way to reach new audiences.
Columbus said the “old-timey stage” is especially appealing.
“It’s its own unique space, and we adapt to unique space. That’s what my acting company does. So it’s a perfect fit for us,” he said. “The bones of it are so beautiful, so you can imagine what that space is going to look like finished, that’s what exciting to me.”