Opera House: A Century of History
It's 4 p.m. on a Friday and the melodious sounds of Béla Fleck and the Africa Project warming up for the night's performance fill the auditorium as the Opera House staff prepare for the 925 guests that they will receive that evening.
The Waterville Opera House (WOH), which opened in 1902, is a cultural center for Central Maine, regularly bringing in folks from surrounding towns for a range of events, although its reach is also international.
Over the past year the Opera House has featured acts ranging from local school productions to Cabaret in the fall and Camelot will be performed this spring. The stage hosts plays, musicals, concerts, comedy shows and dance recitals. The Opera House even screens movies, a throwback to a long period when the WOH switched its focus from live theatre to film. Every summer for the past 12 years the WOH hosts the Maine International Film Festival with Railroad Square Cinema, attracting viewers from across the state, New England and even around the world.
George Adams, an architect from Lawrence, Mass., designed the Opera House, which he presented to the City Council at the end of the 19th Century. The Council members told him that they would not build an opera house and that what Waterville needed instead was a town hall. According to the Opera House program guide, Adams, "being a most resourceful man, [made] a deal with the Council. 'I'll build you a City Hall and put an Opera House on top!'" In 1896, the citizens of Waterville approved the project and construction began.
At the turn of the century, it was not uncommon to see a joint opera house and a city hall. In fact, Adams designed similar models that appear throughout New England in towns such as Lebanon, NH and Rutland, VT.
"He designed them with an eye toward being an efficient use of buildings," Diane Bryan, executive director of the WOH, said.
Today the Opera House still shares its space with the city, although it is one of the few remaining to do so. "We're one of the very few that are still in operation," Bryan said.
"This is an important place in the Waterville and Central Maine region. You know, I get some of the older people who come to the shows and they always stop to tell me, 'When I was little I used to come here with my mother,' or, 'I used to watch movies here'...It is such an important cultural spot in the area," she said. "It's a Central Maine fixture. We are one of the largest houses [here]."
The Opera House, Bryan said, is "an important economic entity to Waterville...Think about it, we've got 800 people coming tonight [for Béla Fleck], so where are they going to eat? Downtown. They're going to look into the shop windows."
"In this community, we have such a beautiful facility that can offer so much culture and cultural events. Geographically we really are off the beaten track. But to have something like this enriches a community." In fact, she said, it's what has kept the Brooklyn native in Waterville for the past 25 years.
Through the years the city has seen some drastic changes. "It had a really bustling economy when I first got here. And now one by one the mills have shut down, and the factories have shut down...the traditional industries that fueled Central Maine have really disappeared," Bryan said.
The WOH is in the early stages of a capital campaign that seeks to raise somewhere between $3 and $3.5 million to renovate the theater and "to bring it up to modern standards while retaining its historic nature."
"It will still look like the Opera House, but it will be beautiful, it will be shiny and we'll be better able to bring in more cultural events. The renovations will make the theater more comfortable by trading out some of the oldest seats, and safer, with better backstage facilities. The seats in the balcony are much, much older. Some of them in the back, we think, could even be the original seats. Not comfortable--definitely not comfortable," Bryan said.
The goal is to have the renovation completed within the next two to three years.
The WOH has hired architect Scott Teas of TFH Architects to work on the project. Pamela Hawkes of Ann Beha Architects, who specializes in historic preservation, is also on the job. She will try to piece together what the original theater looked like in its entirety through old photographs and descriptions. The ceiling, for example, once had an intricate mural on it, which is now only slightly visible through the paint. Hawkes will work to restore the mural and to help maintain the Opera House's integrity. The WOH staff is currently looking for old photographs of the building, so if anyone has any information on their whereabouts, do not hesitate to contact them.
The theater used to have a grand chandelier and one man is on a quest to see its return to the Opera House. When the WOH started showing films in the early part of the century, the chandelier was removed since it blocked the projector. Public Works had it stored somewhere, but it got lost over the years.
Charles "Fred" Stubbert, a Waterville City Councilor on the Physical Plant Committee, is helping with the project and is searching high and low for the missing chandelier--or "Fred's chandelier" as the staff affectionately calls it for the time being.
"If Fred puts his mind to it, he's going to find it. I'm sure it's out there somewhere," Bryan said.