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Old Opera House buys building housing Jefferson County newspaper

February 03, 2013|By RICHARD F. BELISLE | richardb@herald-mail.com
  • Steve Brewer, 57, has managed The Old Opera House for 10 years. He ran a community theater in South Carolina before moving to Charles Town.
Photo by Richard Belisle

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — Two historic Charles Town landmarks — the Old Opera House, a community theater, and the Spirit of Jefferson and Farmer’s Advocate, a weekly newspaper — crossed paths recently in a property transfer.

The theater company, at 204 and 206 N. George St., bought the newspaper building at 210 N. George St. When renovations are complete in the fall, the theater will have more space for stage productions, plus dance, music and acting education programs. There will be ample room for costume, prop and scenery storage, said Steven Brewer, managing and artistic director.

“Now we have costumes stored everywhere,” he said, pointing to a pile of clothing in a corner outside his office door on the second floor of the main theater building.

The Spirit of Jefferson and Farmer’s Advocate dates to 1844, when Southern-leaning James W. Beller wanted to start a paper in opposition to the Virginia Free Press, which was publishing in Charles Town in the turbulent decades before the Civil War erupted.

“The Spirit changed hands several times and stopped publishing during the war,” said Rob Snyder, the paper’s managing editor. “It started back up again in 1872. This time its masthead said West Virginia.”

In 1910, the paper moved into the building at 210 N. George St., Snyder said.

Charles See, publisher of the Hampshire Review, a weekly in Romney, W.Va., bought the Spirit in December 2009, according to the paper’s website. The paper currently publishes its weekly edition on Wednesdays.

“We didn’t need all that space,” Snyder said. “We were huddled into the front of the building. There was no longer a printing press, composing room or darkroom in the back,” Snyder said.

The theater company bought the 3,600-square-foot, one-story building in December for $208,000, Brewer said.

Renovations, estimated at $35,000 to $50,000, will include new floors and walls and a new heating and air-conditioning system. Volunteer labor and donated materials will keep costs down, he said.

The building was heated by an ancient steam system, the remnants of which are huge cast-iron radiators hanging high on walls near the ceiling.

“They’ll be broken up for scrap,” Brewer said.

The theater does six stage productions a year. The 2013 season opens Friday with “Suite Surrender” for a two-weekend run.

Brewer said the new building will enable the theater to add more productions to its calendar.

The Opera House has an annual budget of $300,000. Its income stems from ticket sales, playbill advertising, individual and businesses donations, grants and tuition from its growing dance, music and acting programs.

The theater has two full-time employees, including Brewer and an office manager, five part-time dance, music and acting instructors, and more than 100 volunteers.

The Old Opera House celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2011.

In 1910, Annie G. Packette, a Washington family descendent, raised $50,000 to build a classic 500-seat theater with a stage, orchestra pit and balcony, according to a local history.

It closed in 1948 and fell into disrepair until a group of activists led by Dixie Kilham, owner of the Hilltop House in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., contacted the owners about using the building for local productions.

The owners agreed and paid to have the building cleaned up.

“They had to haul out more than 30 truckloads of pigeon droppings,” Brewer said.

The curtain went up again in 1976 with a production of “My Fair Lady.”

Brewer, 57, has managed the theater for 10 years. He ran a community theater in South Carolina before moving to Charles Town.

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