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Old Opera House marks a century

February 14, 2011|By RICHARD F. BELISLE | richardb@herald-mail.com
  • Steven Brewer, the Old Opera House's managing director for the last seven years, said the theater will hold a formal 100th-anniversary celebration May 12, when it reprises "My Fair Lady."
By Richard F. Belisle/Staff Writer

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — On Monday, about 10 actors and theater enthusiasts stood on the stage in the Old Opera House in an informal gathering and sang “Happy Birthday” to the venerable old theater commemorating its first century.

“Bachelor Girls’ Federation of Clubs,” the first stage production of the then “New Opera House” on the corner of Liberty and George streets, opened on Valentine’s Day in 1911.

Proceeds from the show were given to the Daughters of the Confederacy to help poor Confederate veterans.

In 1910, according to a history of the theater read by Carol Gallant, a member of the Old Opera House Theatre Co., Annie Packette, a relative of Charles Town’s Washington family, raised $50,000 to build “a center for the arts.”

She hired a Washington, D.C., architect to design a structure that would, over the years, be home to vaudeville acts, movies, stage productions, conventions, church services, band concerts and even a prize fight.

Steven Brewer, the Old Opera House managing director for the last seven years, said the theater will hold a formal anniversary celebration May 12, when it reprises “My Fair Lady.” The Lerner and Loewe Broadway hit was the first production for the Old Opera House when it reopened after a major renovation.

The New Opera House went dark in 1948, the victim of hard times and the advent of television, Brewer said.

In 1971, Dixie Kilham and Robert and Diane Angel, along with other citizens, formed the nonprofit Old Opera House Theatre Co. to save the old building and bring productions back to its stage. In 1973, the Todd family, who are relatives of Annie Packette, donated the building and land to the company for $1, Brewer said.

The volunteers raised money and put in untold hours renovating the theater and modernizing its stage, lighting and sound systems. The 4,000-square-foot plaster ceiling was redone, new seats were brought in and a new floor was laid.

First, they had to shovel out 35 dump-truck loads of pigeon droppings, Gallant said.

More than $300,000 has been spent during Brewer’s seven-year tenure improving the theater, he said.

His annual operating budget is $225,000. He is the theater’s only paid employee.

In addition to its stage productions, of which there are six this year, the Old Opera House runs an acting studio with an average class of 15 students. There is also a dance studio with more than 100 students. The schools’ mission is to provide area young people with an arts education, Brewer said.

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